Jan 30 2014
Parts of southern England have seen the wettest January on record, with more rain set to bring further misery to flood-hit areas.
A large area from east Devon to Kent and inland across parts of the Midlands has already seen twice the average rainfall for the month, figures from the Met Office show.
The rain has caused widespread flooding, with the Army being deployed to the Somerset Levels to bring relief to villages cut off by the most significant floods for 20 years.
The Met Office is warning of a band of heavy rain sweeping the country tomorrow, with 20mm to 30mm set to fall across many parts and as much as 40mm on high ground.
Over the weekend, winds of up to 50mph to 60mph are set to hit the country, which combined with spring tides could see western coastal areas battered by large waves.
The bad weather will worsen the problems faced by some areas such as Somerset.
The UK has had an unusually wet January. A spokesman for the Met Office said: "For the UK as a whole, 164.6mm of rain has fallen so far this month, 35% above the long-term average, with all nations having above average rainfall."
South-east and central southern England received more than twice its average rainfall, with a record 175.2mm falling between January 1 and 28, beating the previous record of 158.2mm set in 1988.
The rainfall across south-west England and South Wales reached 222.6mm in the same period, making January 2014 the fifth wettest in the records dating back to 1910 and the wettest since 1995, when 224.4mm fell.
"Looking at the winter season so far, the whole of the UK is on target for a wetter than average winter," the Met Office spokesman added.
"The main reason for the mild and wet weather so far is that we have seen a predominance of west and south-west winds, bringing in mild air from the Atlantic - as well as the unsettled and at times stormy conditions."
The weather has left some areas badly hit by flooding, with 65 square kilometres of the Somerset Levels swamped.
The Government has given the go-ahead for the Army to help villages cut off by the floods and sp ecialist vehicles are being brought in so troops can deliver food to stricken villagers, transport people and deliver sandbags.
The Ministry of Defence said last night it was deploying military planners to help Somerset County Council, adding that soldiers would be on the ground in the county from this morning.
After a meeting of the Government's emergency committee, Cobra, last night, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: "Dredging will be carried out in the Somerset Levels as soon as it is safe do so and extra sandbags are being made available to those who need them.
"The Ministry of Defence is also working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to identify what immediate support they can give to the local residents.
"Following my visit to Somerset at the weekend, I have ordered a definitive local action plan to be agreed by local and national agencies which will deliver robust defences against floods over the next 20 years."
Mr Paterson was met with hostility when he visited Somerset, with farmers, politicians and church leaders demanding immediate action to alleviate what furious residents described as "Third World" conditions.
He said yesterday the county council had asked for assistance "for the first time today".
But a council spokesman said the authority had been discussing with the military for weeks the possibility of bringing in manpower, sandbags and amphibious vehicles.
John Osman, Conservative leader of Somerset County Council, said the Army would give beleaguered residents the chance to repair their battered properties, with the village of Muchelney cut off since the turn of the year because of flooded roads.
He said: "The council had actually planned to get some amphibious vehicles in, paid for by public money, because this situation really needed to be sorted out. People's homes and properties have been under flood water for weeks.
"We were due to place an order imminently, but the Government saying the military will be involved has saved the public purse that money."
Rev Jane Twitty said she and fellow Somerset residents had been using boats to get about during the flooding.
Heating fuel is running out for those who are not on mains gas and children are cold and wet when they get home, she added.
She told BBC Breakfast the community was "getting tired now" and would welcome help from the military.
She said: "I am sure they will but there will be questions asked about why it took so long to help them. I think they will be hoping they can be more flexible about times they will be coming in and out because the boat stops at 4pm."
Mr Paterson's announcement about Army intervention came after Prime Minister David Cameron pledged rapid action to deal with the crisis, promising that dredging of rivers would start as soon as water is reduced to a safe level.
Many parts of the Levels have been flooded since Christmas and there are fears it could be many months before the water is completely pumped away.
Environment Agency (EA) teams have been running dozens of pumps 24 hours a day to drain an estimated 1.5 million tonnes of water (equivalent to 600 Olympic-sized swimming pools) off the Levels.
Drainage experts blame two decades of under-investment in flood defence work for turning the Levels into a "disaster area" and said it was "very, very urgent" that rivers are dredged to prevent more damage to homes, livelihoods and wildlife.
The EA has come under fire from MPs and local councils, but insists that increased dredging of the rivers would not have prevented the recent flooding and was "often not the best long-term or economic solution".
Flooding experts have also warned that dredging would not have helped the situation.
Hannah Cloke, a flooding expert from the University of Reading, said: " The Prime Minister's assertion that dredging will provide a long-term solution to flooding is just not backed up by the evidence.
"Dredging increases the carrying capacity of river channels, helping more water to flow downstream.
"But carrying capacity of rivers is just one small part of an area's drainage pattern and its susceptibility to flooding. Land use, topography, underlying geology, and above all, rainfall levels are also relevant.
"Given the amount of rain that has fallen, you could have doubled the carrying capacity of every drainage channel in Somerset, at huge cost, and large parts would still have flooded."
But the PM's promise was welcomed by Mr Osman, who said: "We have lobbied hard to get national attention, we are in a major incident due to the extent and length of time that much of the county is flooded.
"Now we have the PM behind us, people can start to believe that real action, dredging the rivers, sorting the drainage systems, protecting our communities will really happen. I am delighted to hear this."
Mr Paterson will chair another meeting of the Cobra committee this afternoon to discuss the flooding situation, Downing Street said.
Asked whether the Prime Minister felt that the Environment Agency's response to the floods had been inadequate, David Cameron's official spokesman told a Westminster media briefing: "A number of agencies, including the Environment Agency, have been working hard in response to the situation which communities are facing.
"On dredging, as the Prime Minister said, that needs to be done as soon as it is safe to do so, and that will be done. And then I'm sure, as you would expect, once we have helped the communities through the immediate challenges that they face, we will across Government, working with local authorities, look at what lessons can be learnt."
The spokesman denied that there was a dispute with the Environment Agency over the need for dredging once the floods abate.
"The decision around dredging immediately, once the water levels make it safe to do so, is one that we think certainly is very important and it's one that the Environment Agency agree with."
Asked whether the Prime Minister had confidence in Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith, the spokesman said: "I think it is right that he continues to provide leadership to the Environment Agency.
"The Environment Agency has a very important role alongside other agencies in responding to the desperate situation we see in Somerset, as well as the wider repairs and ongoing investment in other parts of the country that have suffered over the recent period."
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: "Almost a week after Somerset County Council declared the flooding a major incident, the Government has finally decided to respond.
"Just days after the Environment Secretary announced that he wanted to see a concrete plan presented to him in six weeks, David Cameron has had enough of Owen Paterson's dithering and called in the Army.
"This comes after it was revealed that Owen Paterson chose to ignore a report which clearly warned a year ago that the lack of river maintenance in regions such as Somerset would pose a serious risk of flooding.
"It is further evidence of the Environment Secretary's failure to take flooding seriously."
Officials at Aberystwyth University in mid Wales said they were taking the weather reports seriously.
It is evacuating students living at halls of residence along the seafront from tomorrow until 4pm on Monday as a precautionary measure.
An email sent to students today read: "Following advice from Natural Resources Wales and Ceredigion Council the university has taken the decision to cancel all teaching activities on Friday January 31 and Monday February 3.
"To ensure your safety during the high tides and stormy weather, the Seafront University Residences will close at 4pm on Friday 31 January until you hear differently, which could be Monday 3 February."
The email said alternative accommodation would be provided for students and gave a 24-hour emergency telephone number for students.
Second year geography undergraduate Millie Farmer, 19, said she and course mates were pleased about the decision.
"We've been given plenty of notice," she added. "The weather's okay at the moment, but I guess it's better to be safe than sorry.
"Plus, we get a four-day weekend now and a Monday lie in."