In England, the Thames has burst its banks. A new political row over the handling of devastating winter storms has erupted into the open.
On Sunday, Communities Minister Eric Pickles joined the attack, suggesting that the government had “perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency’s advice” on flood prevention. Pickles, a member of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party, told BBC TV that “we thought we were dealing with experts.”
On Monday, Chris Smith, the head of the Environment Agency, hit back and accused ministers of having held back vital funds. Smith, a former member of parliament for the Labour Party, said the Treasury had limited the amount the agency could spend on flood management in Somerset.
“When I hear someone criticizing the expertise and professionalism of my staff in the Environment Agency who know more about flood risk management – 100 times more about flood risk management – than any politician ever does, I am not going to sit idly by,” Smith said.
Parts of the southwest have been underwater since the beginning of the year. London has the Thames Barrier to protect it. However, Croydon, a suburb to the south of the capital, has announced plans to divert rising floodwaters caused by heavy rain away from homes and businesses by pumping them into a pedestrian underpass.
Forecasters at the Met Office said the run of winter storms, which have brought heavy rain and strong winds and seen high waves batter the coastline, has proved “exceptional in its duration.”
They also said that Monday would likely be the driest day of the week, although river levels were set to continue rising in places as previous rainfall flowed downstream. Britain endured the wettest January since 1766 this year; some parts of the country have been flooded for more than a month.
On Monday, rail connections to Cornwall still faced severe disruptions, after a 24-hour period when no services were running at all. The low-cost domestic airline Flybe has pledged to double its weekday flights from Newquay in Cornwall to London in a bid to alleviate problems.
Network Rail representatives said the river’s levels were putting other key commuter routes at risk. Military personnel from the army and navy were deployed in strategic areas along the Thames overnight, erecting makeshift flood defenses.
Cameron has described the scene in the Somerset Levels, an artificially drained wetlands area prone to flooding, as “biblical.”
Last week, the prime minister announced 130 million pounds (155 million euros, $215 million) in extra funding for emergency repairs and maintenance. On Monday, Cameron visited the southwest for the second time in four days to survey the damage and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg toured badly flooded Somerset.
mkg/dr (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)