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The land of mud and destruction

There is debris everywhere, and homes have been ruined by floods so powerful every bridge in Cumbria is being checked

Mike Glover
Sunday 22 November 2009 01:00 GMT

People in Cumbria woke in misery and under threat of more rain today. Strong winds and heavy rains were sweeping across the region last night, causing rivers to rise again in an area that had been praying since Friday that the worst of its flooding was over.

As Gordon Brown toured Cumbria, and pledged £1m extra cash to the region, four severe flood warnings remained in place, and environment officers worked round the clock to check and repair flood defences, monitor river levels, and help clear water and debris from the streets. But three more of the area's bridges were closed yesterday, and all 1,800 across the county are undergoing inspections after a police officer died when one collapsed.

Meanwhile, foul weather claimed a second life when a canoeist pulled from a river in Devon died. The 46-year-old, from Reading was rescued from the River Dart at Mel Tor, Newton Abbot, after getting into difficulties. His canoe became trapped against a tree and he was pulled free by members of the public. Two other canoeists were pulled from the river by emergency services and were last night being treated for hypothermia.

During a two-hour visit to Cockermouth, the Prime Minister saw streets strewn with debris from the floods, with upturned cars coming to rest against trees from the force of the torrents; shop windows were smashed and sludge and silt covered the road.

Mr Brown pledged to match money already offered by the regional development agency. "We will do everything we can to support the local community in its hour of need," he said. "I have met people in the centre I have just visited showing great community spirit. It is making me very proud. The emergency services have worked brilliantly, right across the board."

Earlier, Mr Brown met residents taking shelter at the Shepherd's Hotel, Cockermouth. Ann Burns, 76, said: "He tries. I'll give him that. We all need a bit of a lift. I'm going back to nowt. I was one of the first ones evacuated and taken here. I hardly know what day it is. I'm not bothered; I'm still breathing."

Council leader Jim Buchana said: "We will recover from this situation, and the council will make sure all agencies are in this for the long haul."

Extensive flooding followed the highest levels of rainfall measured in England since records began, forecasters said, with 314mm – more than a foot of rain – falling in 24 hours. More than 1,300 homes were affected in Kendal, Ulverston, Keswick, Cockermouth and Workington. Hundreds more were still without power last night.

Despite the flood waters dropping, Cockermouth's main street was still under two feet of water yesterday. Police said conditions remained too dangerous for access. "People are trying to return to the street, believing it is now open," said a spokesman. They were hoping to start the massive clean-up operation, but walking in standing water is dangerous, and buildings may have become unstable due to the pressure of water on the walls, an Environment Agency spokesman said.

Tina Fearon, a firefighter stationed in the town, said they had taken 500 emergency calls since the flooding began and fire crews had been brought in from Barrow and Carlisle. "We are in the process of sweeping the town," she said; "identifying areas to be checked and double-checked, as some people chose to stay in their homes." An army of council road sweepers is ready to clean the sludge off the streets and a decontamination tent has been set up to deal with sewage that may have leaked into the water.

Cumbria County Council inspectors closed two more bridges yesterday – Station Road Bridge in Keswick, and Workington Bridge – meaning 13 have now been shut across the county. John Robinson, network manager for Cumbria Highways, said: "We have teams of inspectors out and about throughout Cumbria. The county's rivers and bridges have taken a severe battering. We've closed several bridges, mainly in the west of the county, as a precaution while our inspectors assess any potential risk." The Environment Agency said four severe flood warnings remained in place last night and they urged people not to use bridges as grandstands.

Northside Bridge, where PC Bill Barker died, was judged structurally sound when last inspected in July 2008. Officials said bridges were routinely inspected every two years. More than 12,000 people worldwide on social network sites left tributes to the dead officer. Some suggested any new Northside Bridge should be named Barker's Bridge in his honour.

The police officer, who would have been 45 yesterday, was directing motorists away from the bridge early on Friday when it collapsed and he disappeared into the swollen waters of the River Derwent. His body was found in nearby Allonby.

Local residents claimed the floods, the second in Cockermouth in four years, were caused by the designation of the twin rivers to be of special scientific interest by the EU, in order to protect salmon spawning grounds.

Eric Nicholson, a Cumbria county councillor, said: "That allowed English Nature to forbid the removal of gravel, which is all right in open country, but is no good near town centres. They said, let the rivers find their own course. Well, it found its own course – right down the main street."

However Phil Rothwell, the Environment Agency's head of flooding strategy, said that no amount of dredging would have prevented the flooding. Cockermouth's flood defences had been upgraded since the 2005 floods, but these were overpowered by the sheer amount of water. "These were exceptional circumstances, although with climate change these exceptions may become the norm."

He said Carlisle's £38m defences put in after 2005 flooding were one of the positive signs of last week's floods, in that they had done their job. Carlisle escaped the worst of the damage this time. "Despite the tragic events at Cockermouth, the lessons of 2005 have been learned," he said.

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