- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2007

LONDON — The worst flooding to hit England in at least 60 years has put tens of thousands of people to flight, many leaving their homes, cars and possessions to the ravages of rising water and looters. Forecasters warned yesterday that more rain is on the way.

Flash floods that started Friday have inundated thousands of square miles of central and western England, including William Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. Other favorite tourist destinations such as Oxford and Windsor are under threat.

An estimated 90,000 gallons of water per second is sweeping down the Thames River, so far sparing London but threatening the valley to its west. Both the Thames and the Severn, England’s two longest rivers, were within inches of overflowing their banks yesterday afternoon.

Across the land, church towers and spires, abandoned houses and office buildings, trees and traffic lights jutted forlornly from what now looks like a series of massive lakes.

Several power stations were shorted out or turned off for protective purposes, leaving thousands of homes without electricity. Many more have had their drinking water contaminated.

The floods are being compared to those of March 1947, when every river in England“s south, midlands and northeast burst their banks, leaving at least 700,000 acres under water and more than 1 million Londoners without drinking water.

“The benchmark was 1947,” Anthony Perry, an Environment Agency flood-risk official, told journalists, but “this has already exceeded it. We have not seen flooding of this magnitude before.”

“This is surreal,” nursery assistant Debbie Goddard, who with her husband and three children were marooned in a supermarket in Tewkesbury, England, told the Daily Mail newspaper. “It’s something you’d expect in a Third World country.”

Tens of thousands of victims were expected to huddle last night in a soccer stadium in Oxford, or in emergency centers dotted across Tewkesbury or in Ye Olde Black Bear and other pubs across the watery countryside.

Those who grimly held on at home were often left trying to boil their tap water with gas fires or candles in upstairs rooms while floodwaters swirled through their kitchens downstairs.

The 1947 disaster was blamed on a thaw that followed an exceptionally snowy winter. This onslaught, meteorologists say, was caused by a shift in the jet stream that circles high above earth. As a result, low temperatures normally associated with Scandinavia are triggering freak weather in Britain.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown hinted at a press briefing yesterday that he thinks global warming may be at least partly to blame for the wetter weather that England has experienced this year, starting with severe flooding in northern parts of the country last month.

“Obviously,” said Mr. Brown, “like every advanced industrial country, we”re coming to terms with some of the issues surrounding climate change.”

The prime minister also promised that funding for the Environment Agency to update flood defenses would be raised from $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion. Agency officials said another $2 billion is needed because climate change will lead to increased rainfall.

By midafternoon yesterday, severe flooding alerts were in force in nine counties and conditions were forecast to get worse today, with some rivers expected to rise to more than 20 feet above normal.

Food shortages are beginning to bite in the afflicted areas, as the floodwaters play havoc with transportation links from farms to stores, shops and markets.

More than 200,000 people are estimated to be without drinking water. Carrie Douch, a mother of two in the west England city of Gloucester, told the Times newspaper of London that “everyone is desperate to get their hands on some water.”

“We have heard stories of grown men pushing kids out of the way to get bottles of the stuff,” she said after driving 15 miles herself to find a supply after her local water-treatment plant was shut down.

Adding to the misery were reports of looting in several areas. The West Mercia police said looters were targeting stranded cars and trucks, thousands of which have been abandoned by flood victims as the waters inundated farm roads and major highways alike.

“The situation is looking critical at the moment,” said Joe Giacomelli, a spokesman for the Environment Agency. “Unfortunately, the misery is set to continue.”

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