North-western England sank yesterday under the heaviest rainfall ever seen in Britain, with more than a foot recorded in just 24 hours at a weather station in Seathwaite, Cumbria.
Hundreds of residents were evacuated as rising water laid waste to towns and farmland, and the RAF scrambled helicopters to offer aid to the worst-hit areas.
The downpour has devastated the town of Cockermouth, just south of the Scottish border, where more than 200 locals have been forced to flee their homes for safety. Two rivers have burst their banks in the area, sending millions of gallons of rainwater flowing through the main streets and leaving vehicles and businesses submerged.
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Red Cross worker Ian Rideout said large numbers of people were suffering from shock, and that the centre of Cockermouth “looks like it has been completely destroyed”.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “The water has caused so much damage that many of the homes here are completely ruined.
“We’ve been working non-stop and between the Red Cross and RNLI we’ve rescued in the region of 200 people from their homes.
“Most of the people we’ve rescued have been in shock. One minute it’s raining heavily, then the next their home is filling with water and they’re being evacuated by the Red Cross.”
Mr Rideout led a crew from northern Scotland to tackle the flooding, aided by two boats and nine rescue vehicles.
Local resident Alan Smith said the townspeople were worried by forecasts of more rain into the weekend, even though the water level was falling yesterday afternoon. At one point it reached eight feet deep in some parts of the town.
He said: “It’s come down four feet from last night, but the fells are sodden and if we get any more rain, it will just come straight off and into the river and the level will rise again.
“If we have persistent rain like last night and the day before, we will be back to square one.”
The Met Office said the rainfall that was seen in north-western England over the past three days had broken historical records, and the 12.5 inches that hit Seathwaite in just 24 hours was the heaviest downfall recorded in the UK since records began in 1914.
Though the latest weather conditions, described as “a historical event” by MeteoGroup forecaster Julian Mayes, could not be blamed entirely on climate change, experts have warned that such freak occurrences are likely to become normal in the years to come.
Describing the flooding as being of “biblical proportions”, Mr Mayes said: “The fact that there’s eight feet of water in some places is not that surprising.
“Primarily, it’s the sheer quantity in the last 36 hours that has caused the flooding. But in November the ground is saturated. The rain can’t get into the soil, it just runs off. That means rivers rise very quickly and suddenly.”
Chris Bell, a forecaster at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, agreed that a direct link should not be made between the floods and global warming.
“It’s probably not good practice scientifically to blame single weather events on climate change,” he said.
“That being said, if the globe is indeed warming, you’re going to have more heat in the atmosphere. We know that air that is warm is able to carry more water vapour. There is certainly the potential that we could have heavy rain events more commonly in the future.”.
Dr Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland, said the flooding underlined the need for a strong deal at the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December.
“In England this is being called a thousand-year flood, but climate change will make that much more common,” he said. “It’s now just a question of how bad it will get. If we don’t get good reduction measures, it will get worse.”