11 people missing including police officer as hundreds are rescued from rising floods

Mail Online (Link) (November 20, 2009) Pictures at original link

Rescuers were desperately searching for a missing police officer today after floods caused a bridge to collapse as parts of northern Britain suffered the heaviest day of rain since records began.

The incident occurred as the rising River Derwent caused the Northside bridge to topple in the early hours of this morning in Workington, Cumbria - the worst hit region of the country.

Police said that 11 people were still unaccounted for as Environment Secretary Hilary Benn described the storms as 'a one-in-a-thousand-year flood.'

More than 200 people in the county who were trapped in their homes by flood waters have been rescued by emergency services after torrential rain caused rivers to burst their banks.

But many more are still stuck and the rescue mission is ongoing as more torrential rain was predicted to fall. Emergency services were searching 10 properties in Cockermouth they had not been able to reach previously.

Many people were forced to break through the roofs of their houses to escape the chaos.

The Environment Agency said hundreds of properties in the county were flooded, with the towns of Cockermouth and Keswick among the worst affected as the waters rose rapidly last night.

RAF helicopters airlifted at least 50 people from buildings in Cockermouth, where police said around 960 homes were at risk of flooding after the fast-flowing River Cocker burst its banks.

Parts of the county have seen more than 250mm (9.8 inches) of rainfall - possibly as much as 300mm (11.8 inches) in some areas.

Another 5.9in (150mm) could fall on the Lake District's higher fells by midday today.

Cumbria Police said the male officer was unaccounted for after Northside bridge, on one of the main routes into Workington on the A597, collapsed overnight, cutting off the gas supply to the town.

A spokesman for the police said: �A search operation is under way and we have assigned a liaison officer to support the family.

�This is an extremely difficult time for the officer�s colleagues, who are still committed to supporting the community and dealing with the flood situation.�

Mr Benn, who is in Cockermouth, said it may have 'the wettest day ever recorded' in the county.

He said that even defences built after the floods of 2005 to withstand a 'one-in-100-years flood' could not cope with the volume of water.

'What we dealt with last night was probably more like one-in-a-1,000, so even the very best defences, if you have such quantities of rain in such a short space of time, can be over-topped,' he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

John Carlin, owner of the Allerdale Court Hotel, in Cockermouth town centre, said the amount of rainfall to hit the area was 'staggering'.

He said: 'I have lived here for 15 years and have never seen anything like it.

'At two o'clock (yesterday) it was raining heavily but there was nothing here but now there is four feet of water outside my front door. The amount of rain has been staggering.

'It's desperate. The town centre is completely flooded, the only people out there at the moment are the emergency services. The water is up to the waists of the firefighters.

'We are under six inches of water ourselves but we have still got electricity and the fire service have told us they are on standby if they need to evacuate us.

'I can see still see lights on outside. Our hotel electricity is in the cellar, I have tried to seal it up but we've lost it if it fills up.'

Workington MP Tony Cunningham said the flood was 'of biblical proportions' and seen 'once every 1,000 years'.

The Labour MP told Sky News: 'The scale and the force of the devastation in Cockermouth is huge.'

He said it would have taken great force to destroy the Northside Bridge in Workington.

'I went down to the bridge last night and I've never seen the River Derwent as wide as it was.

'The force of the river was absolutely incredible. This is a stone bridge, to wash away a bridge of that size and dimension is incredible.'

Dozens of others were helped to safety by the RNLI, the coastguard, police, fire and rescue and mountain rescue teams.

The army was called in to help with house-to-house rescues as Gordon Brown offered the Government's full assistance in dealing with the disaster.

Flooding was also reported in north-west Wales and in Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland.

The Environment Agency had in place six severe flood warnings - all in Cumbria - 29 flood warnings, and 65 less serious flood watches.

Water levels rose to almost 8ft (2.5m) on the worst affected streets in Cockermouth and two bridges in the area collapsed, police said.

Homes in the lower lying part of Keswick were evacuated after the River Greta burst its banks yesterday morning, rising to about 5ft (1.5m) higher than normal.

Fire crews were called in from surrounding towns to help pump water out of flooded homes and get trapped householders out and take them to emergency evacuation centres.

By the early hours flood water levels in Cockermouth and Keswick had stopped rising, allowing rescuers to reach people trapped in their homes by boat.

Previously swirling currents and debris in the water had prevented boats being deployed.

RAF squadron leader Dave Webster said that with no reports of people in immediate danger the air search and rescue operation was beginning to wind down, though a helicopter would remain on standby.

'Since about 3.30am we haven't conducted any life-saving operations. We have been on standby to move people around various areas,' he said.

'We are going to keep a helicopter on site at Cockermouth for some considerable period to come just to make sure we have the cover there in case it is required.

'There are also mountain rescue teams deployed out there to provide additional assistance where required in and around the Cockermouth area.'

Meanwhile more than 200 Cockermouth residents were spending the night in emergency reception centres at Cockermouth Secondary School, Keswick Convention Centre, Ulverston Victoria Hall School, Penrith Leisure Centre and St Joseph's Secondary School in Workington.

Residents were being warned not to drive or walk through flood water or attempt to unblock drains themselves.

They were also being urged to check on vulnerable friends and neighbours and ensure they are equipped with torches, mobile phones, waterproofs, water, radios with batteries, medication and other essential items.

With the downpour predicted to continue today, the Environment Agency warned that more properties were at risk from the rising floodwater.

Rain also battered north-west Wales and western Scotland throughout yesterday.

The rain was accompanied by severe gales, with gusts of 65mph to 75mph in western coastal areas and up to 95mph over the mountains.

Several main roads in Cumbria were closed, including parts of the A66, A591, the A6 and the A592, and people were advised to avoid all but essential travel.

The AA said it was 'flat out' rescuing stricken cars in north-west England and North Wales.

Richard Westmoreland, the motoring organisation's water rescue technician, said: 'Conditions in Cumbria have been horrendous - the worst I've seen."

Officials worked through last night to put up temporary flood defences for 400 properties in Carlisle, although the Environment Agency admitted that pockets of the city were still at risk.

Rescue operations were also under way last night in Eamont Bridge, Low Crosby and Warwick Bridge.

A police spokeswoman said: 'Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service have 16 pumps actively assisting around the county at the moment while three boats are operating in Cockermouth ferrying stranded people to safety.

'Seven Royal National Lifeboat Institution boats are being sent over from the North East to assist emergency services.'

Last night up to 350 homes were also without power in Elliot Park in Keswick where householders have been advised to leave their addresses as the problem may not be fixed for several days.

United Utilities restored electricity to 660 of the homes that were affected by power cuts in the Cockermouth area, police said.

Overseeing the RNLI teams from the police command centre in Penrith, RNLI Divisional Inspector North Andy Clift said: 'Our swift-water-rescue trained volunteer teams, made up of coastal lifeboat volunteers and staff from the charity, were alerted at around 5pm to join the emergency flood response to people in Cockermouth.

'We've gathered our response equipment including inshore inflatable boats, and headed straight for Penrith for briefing. The operational teams are now travelling direct to Cockermouth to prepare four lifeboats to launch into the floodwaters. We've got a further five lifeboats on route.

'The dark and cold conditions won't help, but our teams train year-round to ensure we can respond to the specific conditions faced with swift water flooding, which are different to the conditions our volunteers usually face at sea."

The charity's inshore lifeboats are capable of operating in the current conditions as they have engines strong enough to cope with the speed of the water, the RNLI added.

A HM Coastguard spokeswoman said: "Her Majesty's Coastguard have been continuing to support the emergency services' response to the flooding by co-ordinating rescue assets including our own volunteer Coastguard Rescue Teams.

'Maryport Coastguard Rescue Team are assisting police in Workington on the border of the River Denham, and Whitehaven Coastguard Rescue Team are working with the RNLI in Cockermouth, providing support and communications to the lifeboats on scene.

'We have also been working with the RAF who currently have three Sea Kings from bases in Valley, Leconfield and Boulmer providing support.'

In the centre of Dumfries in Dumfriesshire, a car park in the Whitesands area flooded when the River Nith burst its banks yesterday.

More than 10 rural roads across the Dumfries and Galloway area were closed due to flooding yesterday, Dumfries and Galloway Council said.

The storm is expected to ease off today as it moves into south-east England, but gales and heavy rain are predicted to return tomorrow.

Forecaster Rachel Vince from MeteoGroup said: "There will be some respite by tonight - by the evening it looks like being dry across the whole of the UK."

Please remember these among the many going through natural disasters around the world in your prayers.