Floods may get worse, warns Cameron

David Cameron has warned that the flooding crisis is likely to get worse even though Britain is set for a respite from the devastating winter storms.

Workmen clear debris at the scene in central London.
Workmen clear debris at the scene in central London.

The Prime Minister said while the weather was due to improve, the sheer volume of rain over recent weeks meant groundwater levels would keep rising in may places.

The comments came as power firms struggled to reconnect tens of thousands of homes after the latest downpours and high winds. Two people were killed yesterday - including a female minicab driver whose car was hit by falling masonry.

Despite weather forecasters predicting an "improving picture" with lighter winds and less rain, the Environment Agency (EA) said parts of southern, south west and central England remain at risk of flooding due to high river levels following the recent heavy rainfall.

Mr Cameron, who visited flood-hit Chertsey in Surrey before chairing the Government's Cobra emergency committee this evening, said the next 24 hours would be "vital" as river levels were set to rise again.

"Thankfully, it does appear that we will see less rain and wind over the next few days," he said.

"However, after so much rain over recent weeks, groundwater levels remain very high and in many places will continue to rise."

The EA said it had closed the Thames Barrier for a record 16th consecutive time to help lower river levels.

Paul Leinster, chief executive of the EA, said; "We continue to see the very real and devastating impacts that flooding can have on communities and business. We know the distress that flooding can cause and are doing everything we can to reduce the impacts.

"Despite an improving forecast the risk of flooding will continue for many communities in southern parts of England over the next few days. We ask people to remain vigilant and take action where necessary.

"Environment Agency teams are working round the clock to support local authorities' relief effort. We have also teams out working to reduce the risk of flooding to communities and have deployed over 50 temporary defences.

"Over 1.3 million properties have been protected since the start of December thanks to Environment Agency defences and the Thames Barrier will close for a record 16th consecutive time today."

Mother-of-three Julie Sillitoe, 49, was killed close to Holborn Underground station after large chunks of masonry fell on to her silver Skoda Octavia last night.

The minicab driver's passengers, a 25-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman, are being treated in hospital.

An 85-year-old man died yesterday after the 22,000-tonne Marco Polo cruise ship was hit by a freak wave in the English Channel.

The man was airlifted off the vessel with a woman in her 70s, but later died. About 10 other people suffered minor injuries and were treated on board.

The vessel, which has been to the Amazon in South America and to the West Indies, is due to dock at Tilbury, Essex, in the early hours tomorrow.

Emergency services and the Army rescued 32 people from the Marine Restaurant in Milford on Sea, Hampshire, at 10pm yesterday, evacuating them in an Army vehicle. Hampshire Police said there were no serious injuries.

A 20ft deep sink hole appeared this morning under a quiet cul-de-sac in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.

The people living in 17 homes close to the site in Oatridge Gardens were evacuated, as the hole, measuring approximately 35ft wide and 20ft deep, was investigated.

Yellow "be aware" weather warnings of icy driving conditions are now in place for most of the UK. Across the south of England, Wales and the Midlands there are also warnings of heavy rain.

Met Office forecaster Charlie Powell said temperatures could drop to minus three Celsius overnight before Sunday is expected to be a dry day for most areas.

"It will be markedly different than it has been in the last few weeks," he said.

Meanwhile, EA chairman Lord Smith admitted he "could have done better" during the flooding crisis and said the country needs to take a "serious look" at how it prepares for more extreme weather.

He told LBC Radio: "I think there are certainly some things that I could have done better.

"I think we could and should have worked harder to persuade partner organisations in Somerset to undertake some of the longer term work that's needed down there which we were wanting to start last year but we weren't able to get the other bits of money that we needed on to the table.

"I should have worked harder to do that - i.e. I probably should have gone down there earlier than I did.

"But on the whole I've been actually very proud of the way that the Environment Agency's staff have responded and in the process have managed to protect 1.3 million homes around the country that would otherwise have flooded if our defences and our work hadn't been in place."

He added: " Now, we need to have a serious look as a country at how we prepare ourselves for that and how we build our flood defences."

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said more than 3,000 servicemen and women were committed to helping the flood relief effort with "thousands more at a state of high readiness" to assist if requested.

The RAF has flown its Tornado GR4 and Sentinel aircraft to capture images of the floods which are being used to co-ordinate efforts to prevent further flooding.

Around 100 soldiers from 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers are still in Wraysbury, Berkshire, while more than 300 military personnel remain in Windsor, Datchet and Bisham, the MoD said.

In Chertsey, servicemen and women from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles and the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment have been helping place a 600-metre Aquadam flood barrier brought over from Sweden.

More than 360 military personnel continue to provide relief in Surrey, while more than 4,000 sandbags were distributed across Hampshire this morning, according to the MoD.

Kent Police said properties remained at risk of flooding in Yalding, Collier Street, East Peckham, Kingston, Patrixbourne, Elham, Bridge, Littlebourne, Bishopsbourne, Wickhambreaux, Lydd, and from Wye to Ashford.

The village of Eastry has also been identified as at risk, a force spokeswoman said.

Fallen trees caused a problem across the county and the M2 was closed today between junctions 6 to 5, and 7 to 6 London-bound.

All non-freight traffic was diverted from the M20 motorway at junction 11 as part of Operation Stack to alleviate a build-up of freight traffic queuing for the Port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel.

Police said the queuing system would remain in place until the backlog of traffic had cleared.

The Light Dragoons have been helping out in the Canterbury area to help prevent properties being flooded.

Soldiers from 5 Scots and 36 Engineer Regiment are also working in Kent.

Lieutenant Colonel James Senior, from the Light Dragoons, said: "My soldiers are deployed throughout the region in support of the civil authorities and will be here until the crisis has abated."

The Energy Networks Association said the number of homes without power had fallen to 65,409 this evening, with 600,000 customers reconnected since yesterday's storms.

Meanwhile, a poll by ComRes for the Independent on Sunday and Sunday Mirror found that just 59% of people thought the Government was "beginning to get a grip" on the flooding.

Some 48% said the storms had made them more convinced that climate change was happening, compared to 30% who said their views had not changed.

An Opinium poll for the Observer found 51% thought Mr Cameron had responded badly to the floods.

Some 51% of those questioned said they believed issues around climate change and global warming caused the floods while 24% did not take that view, and 20% were neutral.

Network Rail said last night's storm has brought down more than 150 trees across the south of England with the west of the country's train services the worst affected.

But it said that more than a dozen routes that were shut by debris and fallen trees have now been restored.

The train track in Dawlish in Devon also suffered more damage with a further 10 metres of the sea wall destroyed.