Where were you during the Great Floods of July 2007?

It's a story that has been tragic and farcical by turns, bringing out the best and worst of the British. Cole Moreton reports on the week when the nation was inundated, but refused to go under
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Friday 20 July. Here comes the summer. For many families the school holidays are about to start. Bags have been packed and loaded into cars, train and plane tickets bought. But the omens are bad. The Met Office has issued another warning of severe weather, perhaps to match the catastrophic rains that caused millions of pounds of damage in Doncaster, Sheffield and Hull a month ago. The legend says the heavy rains on St Swithin's Day (15 July) must be followed by a wash-out of a summer. There are even posters up advertising a film called Evan Almighty, about a man who gets told by God to build an ark. Then just before noon today the sky grows as dark as the night. And the heavens open. In the next hour some places get as much rain as they normally would in the whole of July. Rising waters, dramatic rescues, tragic deaths and warnings of a new plague will follow. The Great Flood of 2007 – part two – has begun.

"I've never seen anything like it," the forecaster Steve Randall will say. "Even after 34 years in the Met Office."

The south coast is hit first: the basement of Worthing hospital floods and drivers are trapped in their cars in Bournemouth as two inches of rain fall in an hour. Then the storms spread north: in Aldermaston children are rescued from primary school by boat; in London 20 Underground stations close, power is cut, flights are cancelled, homes and roads submerged. "Within 45 minutes the water in our sitting room was knee deep," says Marc Lewis of Battersea. "It came through the garden door and bubbled up through the walls."

But this is gentle compared to what is happening further west. Brize Norton in Oxfordshire gets five inches of rain – normally 90 days' worth – in just five hours. The 999 system comes close to meltdown across the region. In Gloucester, at the mouth of the swelling River Severn, a bride and groom are stranded as floodwaters rising up to head height suddenly turn the churchyard into an island. And in the same town Graham Hancy drives his Mitsubishi 4x4 under a low bridge and into the back of a Citroë* which is already submerged. The engine dies, the heavy car is spun round by the force of the torrent and in seconds the water is up to Mr Hancy's neck.

Then, as if from nowhere, a stranger stripped to the waist appears to help him climb out through the sunroof. Together they swim to the side of the road. "I turned around to thank the guy who had rescued me but he had gone," says Mr Hancy. "I don't know who he was."

He was David Quarterman, a 42-year-old contract worker, who says later: "I could see someone struggling behind the glass. I ripped off my high-visibility vest, took off my steel-toe boots and jumped in."

Motorways can't cope with the deluge. There is nowhere for the water to go. Drivers can't see. Engines stall. The tailbacks on the M5 stretch for 40 miles. Anne-Marie Walsh is in a bus with 50 people who left the Lake District this morning, but they're going nowhere now. And out there in one of the hundreds of other cars trapped on the tarmac is a woman who has just gone into labour. Her husband goes out in the torrential rain, banging on windows and pleading for help. By amazing luck a midwife is in a car close by. Someone offers the use of their caravan. The air ambulance is on its way.

Saturday 21 July The baby is born in a caravan on the M5 at 5.45am, just as the air-ambulance is struggling to land nearby in the storm. Meanwhile two Sea King helicopters have been scrambled to Tewskesbury where another woman has gone into labour. The roads are cut off. She is only 21 weeks pregnant with twins. They are born just moments before the rescuers arrive, and winched up together to the helicopter hovering over the house. Mother and children are flown to Cheltenham hospital. But this dramatic rescue story does not have a happy ending. "Everything possible was done to help them," says the local NHS trust after the death of the babies. "This is a tragic situation."

On the motorway Anne-Marie Walsh and her friends get moving at last at 6am. "Morale was kept high by people singing but we were on that bus an awful long time."

More than 2,000 people have spent the night in emergency centres across Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.

Mitchell Taylor, 19, is due for work at the Plough pub in Tewkesbury at 7.30pm. He does not arrive. Friends last saw him heading for a nightclub in the early hours. His mother Jane says: "It's not like him to be gone from home so long."

Sunday 22 July Tewkesbury is "like a war zone" says Charlotte Booth, 28. "Cars litter the streets and water is everywhere." But not the healthy kind. The Mythe Water Treatment Plant which usually pumps out 120 million litres of drinking water a day has been overwhelmed by the Severn. Repairs may take a fortnight, leaving 350,000 people with nothing to wash in, flush with or drink. The Army is bringing in millions of litres in plastic bottles and 926 water bowsers will be put out on the streets.

Homes in Witney, west of Oxford, have been evacuated. The local MP, Conservative leader David Cameron, visits the town and says: "It's grim but people are reacting splendidly." Then he flies off for a pre-arranged visit to Rwanda in Africa, attracting much criticism. Abingdon and other parts of Oxfordshire are hit by fresh floods tonight.

Monday 23 July Castle Meads electricity substation in Gloucester succumbs in the early hours, cutting off the power to 48,000 homes. They now have no light or heat as well as no clean water. But a bigger crisis is looming. The Walham substation just across town supplies half a million homes in western and central England and is under threat from the rising flood. If it goes under, the emergency services will have to launch the biggest evacuation of people since the Second World War. But 100 firefighters and 150 soldiers including Gurkhas and Royal Marines are working in the cold and wet to build an emergency barrier out of steel and 6,000 sandbags. It works, just: when the waters reach their peak they are only two inches below the barrier. A huge disaster is averted.

"Thank you so much," the Prime Minister Gordon Brown will say when he flies in later in the week. "People were depending on you." Corporal David Hill of the Royal Marines is shovelling sand into bags to build the wall further. It's hard work, he says, with 30 blokes filling 1,000 bags an hour, but they have only been back from Afghanistan a few months. "Usually we are being shot at as we do it, so this is a breeze."

Tuesday 24 July The National Flood Appeal is launched by Prince Charles, who was in South Yorkshire and will visit the newly hit areas. "As I saw for myself," he says, "continuing widespread flooding is devastating communities and causing terrible personal trauma, particularly to the most vulnerable members of our society."

Gloucester is a watery ghost town, with shops and businesses closed. It's eerily quiet ... apart from reporters sloshing through the streets and news helicopters filming overhead. Professor Ian Cluckie, chair of the Flood Risk Management Consortium, says there is now a danger from bacteria such as E coli and cryptosporidium. "I'm staggered to see footage of children playing in the floodwater. People think it is harmless rainwater, but it is effectively diluted human sewage."

Wednesday 25 July The Country Land and Business Association says this could hit farms even harder than the foot-and-mouth disaster did. Severn Trent says its blue bowsers are being drained "very, very quickly ... we recognise we are struggling".

In Tewkesbury a man is arrested for pretending to be a firefighter, complete with uniform and flashing blue lights on his car. At the town's rugby club, volunteers try to clear the beer cellar of water. They are using a generator to pump it away. In the early evening most go home but club treasurer and co-founder Bramwell Lane, 64, stays on with his son Christopher, 27, to finish the job. The lights are still on at 10pm.

Further east Oxford United football stadium has been set up as an emergency shelter for people whose homes have been flooded in the west of the city as tributaries to the Thames burst their banks. In Bedford the body of a man in his 40s is pulled from the River Ouse.

Meanwhile resentment is growing in the north as the floods in prosperous areas close to London seem to be getting much more attention than the events of last month. The leader of Hull council says: "We are the forgotten city in this disaster."

Thursday 26 July When retired sea captain Peter Bytheway opens up Tewkesbury RFC clubhouse in the morning he finds the bodies of two men in the cellar. He recognises them immediately as Bram and Chris Lane. They are thought to have been electrocuted, or overcome with fumes from the petrol generator. Mitchell Taylor, who lives a few hundred yards away, is still missing. Some people think he might have tried a shortcut home across the rugby club playing fields as they flooded. He is feared drowned.

Anger rises in this and other towns as the bowsers run out of clean water again. "I came down here five times yesterday and there was nothing," says a woman. "My neighbours saw a builder's lorry come and take away 10 gallons. We can't put up with much more of this."

Teenagers have been seen urinating into a bowser. Fraser Pithie of the water company says: "The anti-social behaviour of some people is making a bad situation even worse ... people are being too greedy."

Friday 27 July Prince Charles visits Upton upon Severn in Wor- cestershire where Geoff Stocker is shin-deep in brown water. "There's no way we can sell up now. People will be asking about flooding for years to come."

Tim Brain, chief constable of Gloucestershire, says there has actually only been one confirmed report of urination in a bowser, and 10 of criminal damage. "For every story we get of selfishness there are many more of care and support for neighbours and the community."

And still it rains. This has now been the wettest early summer, from May to July, since records began in 1766. In the Midlands some people are flooded out a second time. Dr Ken Flint of Warwick University says bugs such as salmonella could kill hundreds of people. "The worst time is going to be when the water recedes. The bacteria will be far more concentrated in the sludge." The Daily Mail raises fears of cholera and plague.

Saturday 28 July Firefighters crossing a submerged field in Tewkesbury with a hovercraft discover the body of a young man. It is thought to be the missing teenager Mitchell Taylor. The forecast is for heavy rain.

Further browsing: metoffice.gov.uk/weather/uk/uk_forecast_warnings.html