The Year in Review: British life

When the rain came
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The Independent Online

The people of Hull woke on the last Monday in June to the sound of unusually heavy rain drumming on their rooftops. Few probably thought anything of it. After the best spring in living memory, the weather had simply changed. The start of summer had been a disappointment, but the rain was about to take a dramatic turn for the worse Britain was in the grip of what would prove to be the wettest early summer since records began in 1766.

The deluge over Humberside carried on throughout rush hour, and by mid-morning, water was falling at a huge rate. As sewers and drains rapidly overran with millions of gallons of surface water, it became clear to the authorities that a full-scale emergency was underway. By lunchtime, 8,600 homes were beneath several inches of water and the emergency services were stretched to the limit. Raw sewage was spilling into the streets and buildings at an alarming rate, and people were left wondering why they had been so utterly unprepared.

The rain soon brought tragedy. Michael Barnett, 28, died after being engulfed by water when his foot became stuck in a metal grille as he tried to clear a storm drain in the Hessle area of the city. The waters subsided quickly but not before they had washed out 20,000 people in Hull alone, leaving thousands to find temporary shelter, forcing the closure of all but eight schools and leaving 100m of damage to local infrastructure.

Festival-goers at Glastonbury had been all too aware of the rain. After two days of heavy showers, the final day of the festival saw unremitting drizzle give way to more downpours. The weather continued to deteriorate through the evening and a helicopter being used to transfer Shirley Bassey back to London was forced to make an emergency landing. The following day, more rain caused gridlock as thousands left the festival site. The storm continued to work its way northwards and, just as Hull was drowning, so too were Worcestershire and much of north and east England.

In Sheffield, the Don and its tributaries had turned into raging torrents. A teenage boy and a 68-year-old man were swept to their deaths and 900 people were evacuated from their homes. But concern began to focus on the brimful Ulley reservoir near Rotherham, which engineers were trying to reinforce. Fearing it was about to burst its banks, police cleared the villages of Catcliffe, Whiston and Canklow during Monday night, closing the M1 between junctions 32 and 36.

By Tuesday morning, Sheffield remained virtually cut off from the rest of the country as transport all but ground to a halt. By now more than 150 flood warnings were in force and the Government insisted it was facing the "ultimate test" as Environment Secretary Hilary Benn faced down reports that the budget for flood defences had been cut. With more rain forecast, fears were mounting for those in parts of South Yorkshire such as Toll Bar in Doncaster, where the water was still waist-deep several days after the deluge and where engineers still battled to reconnect the power to thousands of homes. Luckily the last of the heavy rain did not materialise, but the monsoon summer of 2007 had another trick up its sleeve.

In the weeks that followed, the heavens continued to open on a regular basis, ruining much of the sporting and social programme. Naturally, it poured on St Swithin's Day. At Wimbledon, six of the 13 days were complete wash-outs. Insurers licked their wounds to the tune of 1.5bn while businesses from brewers to barbecue manufacturers counted their losses. Only umbrella-makers seemed to be smiling.

And then on 20 July, the jetstream winds that had remained stubbornly south of their usual position all summer ushered in another depression and yet one more bout of torrential rain. Roads from London to the West Country were waterlogged, but this time it was not concerns over surface water that were uppermost in the minds of the emergency services, but the rapidly rising levels of some of England's biggest rivers.

Nowhere was more vulnerable than Tewkesbury, the picturesque medieval town nestling on the confluence of the Avon and the Severn. Five inches of rain had fallen on already sodden Cotswold and Welsh hills the previous Friday and over the weekend, and millions of gallons of water were rushing into the rivers each second. By Sunday night, all four roads into Tewkesbury were severed, turning the town into an island adrift in the English countryside. On Monday, as television crews hovered noisily in helicopters above what was now a virtual ghost town, it became clear that another emergency was in train. By the end of the following day, 350,000 people in the Tewkesbury and Gloucester areas were without drinking water. The Red Cross launched an emergency appeal, and a father and son lifted the death toll to six when they were overcome by fumes as they attempted to pump water from a building at Tewkesbury Rugby Club.

By now the Army had been called in and for the first time since the drought of 1976, water bowsers became commonplace on the streets of English towns.

Concerns over the threat of disease spread as the waters subsided, leaving a coating of sewage and ruined possessions piled up outside the stinking homes of the flood victims. Now it was the turn of the Thames Valley.

By the end of July, the floods had cost 3bn. Hull, first and worst hit, was dubbed the forgotten city as it was left to cope alone. This Christmas, some 500 of the city's residents are still living in caravans as they wait to return to permanent accommodation. In its report, the Environment Agency concluded that thousands of people had not been alerted early enough to the floods and urged at-risk households to sign up to an early-warning system. Power stations and water supplies were not adequately protected, and utility companies should in future take responsibility for safeguarding them. A further 1bn needs to be spent on flood defences.

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