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British PM warns of worsening floods crisis
by Staff Writers
London (AFP) Feb 11, 2014

British PM cancels Middle East trip over floods
London (AFP) Feb 11, 2014 - British Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday he was cancelling a planned trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories next week to deal with devastating floods in England.

Cameron was due to make the trip on February 18 and 19 although it had not officially been announced for security reasons.

At a press conference about the floods that have affected huge swathes of southern England, the prime minister said he would continue to take personal command of the crisis.

"I will continue to lead the national response by chairing meetings of the government's emergency committee, Cobra. I'm cancelling my visit to the Middle East next week," he told reporters.

"I'm sending my apologies today to Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu and President (Mahmud) Abbas, but nothing is more important than dealing with these floods."

It would have been Cameron's first visit to Israel since he was elected in 2010, although the Conservative leader did visit while he was in opposition.

Prime Minister David Cameron warned Tuesday the British floods were likely going to get worse before they got better, pledging money was now no object to battling back the rising waters.

Cameron scrapped a previously unannounced trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories next week in order to stay home and deal with the floods, as the government faced renewed criticism that it was under-prepared.

Troops were sent in to help deal with the worsening situation in southern England as hundreds of homes were swamped along the River Thames and rail services succumbed to the bad weather.

Affluent towns and villages along the Thames to the west of London have been transformed into lagoons.

More than 1,000 homes have been evacuated along the Thames, in villages and towns such as Wraysbury, Datchet and Chertsey and the situation was set to worsen with heavy rain and storms on the way by Friday.

"There is absolutely no sign of this threat abating, and with further rain and strong winds forecast throughout the week, things may get worse before they get better," Cameron told reporters at his Downing Street office.

"Money is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed for it will be spent. We will take whatever steps are necessary," he said.

As for his planned Middle East trip, Cameron said he would instead continue to "lead the national response" by chairing the government's COBRA emergency committee.

He said he was sending his apologies to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, "but nothing is more important than dealing with these floods".

It would have been Cameron's first trip to the region since becoming prime minister in 2010.

Flooding first hit the largely rural southwestern county of Somerset but has now engulfed towns and village along the swollen Thames in the southeast, encroaching towards London.

A total of 1,600 troops have been deployed, and some were already at work filling sandbags in Wraysbury, where one resident had a bitter exchange with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.

Su Burrows, a volunteer flood warden, said the relief effort had been left to residents like her and pleaded with Hammond for military help to distribute sandbags.

"I'm sorry, I am going to get emotional. There are 100 people of this village currently working together, none of them (Environment Agency) agents, not one," she told him in the exchange on Sky News television.

Burrows told AFP later that her blast seemed to have borne fruit, as 2,000 sandbags were sent to Wraysbury, followed soon afterwards by 100 soldiers.

Hammond earlier cautioned that government cannot "prevent the course of nature".

Insurers said overall claims had already exceeded 500 million ($825 million, 600 million euros) and the bill would rise fast.

Cameron said 2.4 billion ($3.9 billion, 2.9 billion euros) would be spent on flood defences between 2010 and 2014.

However, "when you have these extraordinary weather events, the wettest winter for 250 years, it is very difficult to have all the protections in place that you need".

Rail services have been disrupted, with those heading west from London's Paddington terminus among the worst affected.

In southwest England, nearly nearly three million tonnes of water are being pumped away from the submerged Somerset Levels every day -- enough to fill the Wembley national stadium three times over.

Andrew McKenzie, a hydrogeologist from the British Geological Survey, warned that some communities could be flooded for months due to high groundwater levels caused by the persistent heavy rain from mid-December onwards.

Underground layers of water-bearing rock, called aquifers, in southern England were half-full before the rainy spell began, and have since seen "spectacular" rises in groundwater levels, he said.

After the New Year downpours, there was still a lot of empty storage in the aquifers, but the prolonged rain "has just changed the situation totally".

He said he expected "many more months of groundwater issues".


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