Britain struggles to cope as Oxford too goes under water

By Prasun Sonwalkar, IANS

London : Most Britons have never seen anything like it. As several towns went under water this week, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been raised for 'flood relief' – a term rarely heard in public discourse in Britain.

Support TwoCircles

For the past week, most Britons have been riveted to television news channels and newspapers for graphic images and accounts of floods of the kind they thought only happened in distant places such as Mozambique, Africa or India.

It was in 1947 when floods of such magnitude last lashed swathes of Britain. After Gloucester and Tewkesbury, it was the turn of Oxford to face the wrath of swirling waters as tributaries to the Thames river overflowed into the ancient university town since Wednesday evening. Hundreds of people were evacuated while thousands were dreading the night.

The jury is still out on what exactly caused the watery disaster – more rain is forecast for Thursday – but the climate has well and truly changed from the rather warm weather this time last year. It is usually the holiday season this time of the year, but not so for thousands of people.

Damage to public and private property is already reported to have crossed the 3 billion-pound mark as insurance companies struggle to cope with claims. Several towns, housing areas, roads-turned-lakes – and even people – have a stench about them.

Fears have been expressed about lack of sanitation and related unhygienic conditions leading to diseases. In some areas, the filthy brown flood waters may have been subsiding but the tide of human misery they have left in their wake was relentlessly swelling.

It will be many weeks before normality returns, as residents go about the grim task of sifting through possessions. A steadily mounting pile of soaked and soiled items stand guard at every front door, waiting to catch the eye of the insurance loss official.

People in Gloucester and nearby areas have been queuing for water from tankers, while the army is handing out bottled water. Many hotels and guest houses have been ordered to close down because of lack of sanitation.

Said Kelly Davis of Cheltenham: "We've got two babies aged six months and 18 months. So obviously it's incredibly difficult not being able to bath them. You don't realise how often you need to use the water until it's gone".

There are reports of water from tankers being sold by people wanting to make quick money. Tim Brain, the chief constable of Gloucestershire police, warned such people, and added that such activities would be treated as theft.

He said there had been instances of people "behaving most selfishly", using "very large receptacles" to empty tankers and trying to resell water at inflated prices. "That is simply theft and it is being treated as theft," he said.

He added: "People should exercise patience and forbearance. We urge people to conserve water supplies. We are in an emergency and people are going to have use a minimum amount of water. The vast majority of people in Gloucestershire are doing that. Exercise common sense and be a good neighbour."

Homes were evacuated in Oxford overnight while places including Reading, Henley and Caversham are braced for similar flooding. The Environment Agency had six severe flood warnings in place – three on the Severn – in Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Worcester – two on the Thames around Oxford, and one on the Ock, near Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

BBC weather forecasters said flood-hit areas would see heavy rain of 10mm to 15mm on Thursday. These levels were not expected to make the flooding worse but could slow the speed at which waters recede.

Responding to questions in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said all councils affected by the floods would receive 100 percent compensation. He said £46 million had been made available by the government in the immediate future and annual spending on flood protection would rise to £800 million by 2010/11.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals launched an appeal for donations, saying the rescue of pets and farm animals has already cost £300,000 and involved the biggest deployment of its staff for a generation.