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Cities And Economy Under Threat, Tourists Despair In Britain's Worst Floods In Memory

Gloucester resident Norman Aitken walks through his home which was severely flooded when the river Severn burst its banks due to heavy rainfall, 24 July 2007. Residents of Central and Western England face a huge clean up operation after days of heavy rainfall have left thousands of homes unliveable. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Katherine Haddon
Oxford (AFP) England, July 24, 2007
The fate of more English cities, towns and villages hung in the balance Tuesday as emergency crews built up defences against rising waters during Britain's worst floods in living memory. Queen Elizabeth II said she was "shocked and deeply concerned" by the floods across central and western England in a message of support to the hundreds of thousands of people affected by them, aides at Buckingham Palace said.

The floods produced images of the town of Tewkesbury turned into an island, a helmeted rescuer carrying a baby in a blanket, an elderly woman winched from her home by a military helicopter and people wading through thigh-high waters.

The government's crisis response committee, Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, or Cobra, met late Monday and again on Tuesday as some rivers topped levels reached during the floods in 1947, even as meteorologists forecast more rain.

Later Tuesday, the government pledged an extra 10 million pounds (14.9 million euros, 20.6 million dollars) to help battle the floods.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who chaired the latest crisis meeting, defended the government's actions amid charges it had been too slow to prepare for floods even though heavy rains had been forecast since last week.

"It was very difficult to predict exactly how the floods would affect the area. These were extraordinary events," Michael Ellam told reporters.

Besides large swathes of England that have been submerged since Friday, a rising Thames River threatened the London commuter town of Reading, the royal castle city of Windsor and Henley, famous for a rowing regatta.

Some flooding in those towns "may be unavoidable" as river levels peak in the next day or two, Environment Minister Hilary Benn told the House of Commons in an update on the crisis.

"An evacuation centre has been prepared in Reading," he added.

"This emergency is still not over and the River Thames continues to cause concern," he said.

However, the capital London was probably too far downstream to see a massive surge, an Environment Agency spokesman told AFP.

The city of Oxford and nearby Abingdon could still suffer worse flooding as river levels could rise further, he said.

Waters lapped Tuesday at the university colleges in the centre of Oxford, known for its "dreaming spires", cobbled streets and genteel academic atmosphere.

The river Isis, a branch of the Thames, spilled over a pathway and onto large parts of Christ Church Meadow, next to the centuries-old Oxford college.

Some of the grounds at nearby Magdalen College, whose alumni include poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, were flooded as water rose two feet higher than normal.

However, an Environment Agency spokesman said the situation in the Oxford was better than expected, while waters in flood-hit areas like Gloucestershire were receding as the Severn River stabilised.

But he said "we're not out of the woods yet," as there were forecasts of more showers, including heavy rain on Thursday, which could affect the Severn.

The areas hit hardest by flooding, which began with exceptionally heavy rains last Friday, were Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

It left at least 350,000 homes without running water and 50,000 without power, but supplies were being restored.

Benn said some 140,000 people remained without running water after the treatment plant at Tewkesbury flooded, but he added that tanker trucks were shipping water to residents.

Newspapers Tuesday carried dramatic photographs of Tewkesbury and its 12th century abbey surrounded by water.

related report

British floods to wash 3.0 billion pounds from insurers: economists
London (AFP) July 24 - Britain's worst floods for 60 years could cost the nation's insurance sector up to 3.0 billion pounds (4.5 billion euros, 6.2 billion dollars), analysts said on Tuesday.

They added that the deluge is also affecting the farming and tourism activity, although the overall hit to the British economy was small.

"The full extent of the damage is not likely to be known for some time as flood warnings remain in place in some areas," the Fitch international credit ratings agency said in a note to clients.

Thousands of homes across central and western England remained without running water and electricity on Tuesday after the recent bursting of river banks in the wake of severe rainfall.

Rising floodwaters have struck Tewkesbury, Worcester and Gloucester, along with other towns and villages, while seven severe flood warnings remain in place during Britain's summer.

The London commuter town of Reading and other areas west of the British capital are under threat, as well as the university city of Oxford.

The downpour comes in the wake of severe flooding last month in mostly northern England, which killed four people.

Total insurance claims from all the summer's flooding could run as high as 3.0 billion pounds, according to Fitch.

The Association of British Insurers has meanwhile predicted sector costs of more than 2.0 billion pounds.

"The recent flooding is clearly catastrophic for those directly affected," Capital Economics analyst Paul Dales said.

"But in economic terms, the impact on activity ... is likely to be minor."

Dales said the clearest impact on the economy was a fall in farming output.

However agriculture accounts for just 1.0 percent of total British economic output, while the worst affected English counties of Gloucestershire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire are not key farming areas, noted the economist.

Other regions hit hardest by the latest flooding, which began with exceptionally heavy rains last Friday, were Berkshire, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire.

"The prime agricultural regions are East Anglia and the south west, which have been less disrupted," Dales said.

He added that tourism would also suffer from the downpours.

At Stratford-upon-Avon in west central England, the Royal Shakespeare Company was forced to cancel two performances last weekend after its riverside theatre home was flooded.

"Stratford-upon-Avon -- a prime destination for heavy spending American tourists -- is one of the areas worst hit," Dales said.

"However, overseas spending by tourists (in Britain) still amounts to only 1.5 percent of total GDP. And tourists will probably just spend their money elsewhere, perhaps deciding to stay longer in the capital," he added.

According to Capital Economics, the overall economic impact of the flooding will reduce British economic output by a "near negligible" 0.2 percent of gross domestic product.

"This sits comfortably with the historical precedence provided by similar disasters, where the initial concerns were out of proportion with the ultimate impact on the economy," Dales said.

related report

Tourists lament British weather in flooded Oxford
by Katherine Haddon Oxford, England (AFP) July 24 - With gondola-like punts stacked up next to swollen rivers and picnic grounds sodden, tourists and business people in the university city of Oxford are despairing of the British summer.

The country's worst flooding in 60 years has soaked Oxford, famed for its dreaming spires, at the height of the holiday season and shocked many visitors, despite what they had already heard about the temperamental British weather.

Jessy Li, 30, from Shanghai, was helping to lead a party of about 30 schoolchildren visiting centuries-old Oxford, mainly from eastern China.

"I was a bit surprised -- we had to miss a trip to (nearby) Bath because of it," she said. "Some sports activities we have had to quit because of the water."

While treasures like the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest in Europe, and the Ashmolean Museum have escaped unscathed, many of the riverside areas which give the city much of its summer charm are currently inaccessible.

Normally in June, the River Isis, which runs through the city and is part of the River Thames, would be busy with visitors attempting, and often failing, to master the art of punting.

This involves propelling a long, thin boat, similar to a gondola, along the water by pushing off the river bed and steering with a wooden pole.

But in recent days, punting has been impossible.

Neil Kinch, director of Salters Boat Hire, sat in his office above the swollen Isis and said it could be several days before his business, which rents punts and offers Thames cruises, returns to normal.

People had been unable to go out on the river since last Friday because the water was too fast and too deep, he said.

"There will probably be a week where people are not able to punt," he told AFP, adding that he would usually rent out around 100 punts per day at this time of year.

"We should be busy running boats during the school holidays and corporate parties."

On the other side of the riverbank, Stuart Scott, manager of The Head of the River pub, was starting to tidy up after staying up all night in case the waters flooded in.

The pretty drinking spot is particularly vulnerable to flooding because it has a deck with tables and chairs which leads right up to the river, and the main building is constructed on the water's edge.

"I slept in a chair and set my alarm every 40 minutes," Scott said.

"We had to move all the furniture into the top bar just so it was raised up and prevented any damage."

Despite lining up mops and rolling carpets away in preparation, the pub avoided a heavy soaking, although it did take the precaution of closing a couple of hours early Monday night.

"Yesterday it was quiet -- the road was closed, police were stopping pedestrians and just letting residents through," Scott said.

Slightly further up the river, the Isis did spill over the towpath, soaking swathes of the meadow at Christ Church, whose alumni include "Alice In Wonderland" author Lewis Carroll, usually a popular site for picnics and walks.

At Magdalen College, where choristers hail the start of summer on May 1 by singing from the top of the college tower, fast-flowing water had risen around two feet higher than usual, covering parts of its scenic meadow.

This had overturned punts and boats moored outside, but did not menace college buildings. The adjacent botanic gardens were also lapped.

Ingrid Meimich-Bache, 16, from Stavanger in Norway, studying in Oxford over the summer, said: "Everyone jokes about the British weather but I didn't expect it to hit me."

Nicole Jorwic, 23, a law student at Loyola University in the midwestern US city of Chicago, studying in Oxford over the summer, was more philosophical.

"We have been travelling for two months and it was like this when we were in Strasbourg (France) and other places, so it seems like it's par for the course in Europe," she said.

"I guess I'll see summer when I get back to Chicago."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Emergency Committee Meets In London As UK Faces Worst Floods In 60 Years
London (AFP) Jul 24, 2007
Britain's emergency contingencies committee met Monday night to discuss further measures to combat the worst flooding in 60 years, which Prime Minister Gordon Brown linked to climate change. Large swathes of central and western England were submerged as rivers swelled and burst their banks during four days of heavy and persistent rain, leaving thousands without clean water or electricity and facing the prospect of more rain.

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