Flash flooding in Somerset raises questions over defence cuts
A month’s rain fell in just one night from the first autumn storm yesterday, bringing flooding chaos to roads, rail, rivers and homes across the West.
And while the levels of water began to recede last night, there were still flood warnings and the prospect of more rain forecast this week.
The worst affected area was the northern part of Somerset, but localised flooding affected transport and homes from Herefordshire to Wiltshire and Dorset. At one point yesterday morning, fire crews in Somerset were receiving reports of floods, drivers trapped, homes inundated and road closures at as many as 60 locations.
It raises more questions about the decision to cut funding to flood defence schemes. Earlier this year it was reported that nearly 300 flood defence schemes across England have been left unbuilt due to government budget cuts, including £15 million worth in the South West.
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Many Somerset villages were effectively cut off and low-lying places around Taunton, Axbridge, Cheddar and on the Somerset Levels were badly affected, although it appears most of the issues surrounded impassable roads rather than any large number of homes being flooded.
The village of Chew Magna in the Chew Valley was one of the worst places affected yesterday, as the River Chew burst its banks. Two children and an infant were reported missing, and several people were reported to be stranded in flooded cars.
Avon and Somerset Swift Water Rescue team, staffed by volunteers, met police on the scene around 10am.
The team removed several people from stranded cars en route to the incident, but the main challenge for them was to find the missing children. The worst of the flooding was in Silver Street, which was inundated by flood water. The two missing children were found outside the school, and returned to safety with their parents.
The missing infant was also found, stranded in flood water. A rescue attempt was made, which saw a rescue swimmer enter a property and removing the child from the garden. The girl was returned to safety and to her mother.
Further south, in Wedmore, water as much as three feet deep inundated homes in Guildhall Lane and Gramball Lane, while in Yatton, near Bristol, anyone wanting to leave their homes had to be carried out or jump into boats as the road outside their homes became a lake.
The flood defences at nearby Blackford, installed in the early 1960s, were breached, reportedly for the first time in their history.
Not far away in the village of Winscombe, an early morning cascade of water shocked residents. Sue and James Stewart of Church Road, were woken by the sound of rushing water at 5am, followed by a wall of water and stones which crashed over the wall of their drive and into the side of their house.
Mrs Stewart said: “I have never seen anything like it in 50 years of living here.”
The Met Office said an unusual set of circumstances had unfolded in the skies over the West: a regular deep autumnal Atlantic low had been blown in from the ocean but had stalled over the region because the higher jet stream had switched its path southwards to blow over France. That meant the storm sucked in cold air from the north, bringing especially wet and windy weather over the region.
At first, the forecasters predicted the severe weather warning would be lifted by 9am yesterday morning, but the stubborn low pressure meant it was extended for the rest of the day, with high winds overnight last night and into today (TUE) expected to be the next problem.
The Monday morning rush hour was all but abandoned by drivers and rail commuters as train services were cancelled, roads left impassable and villages cut off. Main roads and country lanes across the region became blocked, notably the A38 west of Taunton and the A370 at Congresbury, just south of Bristol.
Ironically, villagers in Congresbury are due to hold a flooding seminar tonight to help prepare for this winter’s floods; the importance of that event has been borne out by this early autumn flooding.
The village is appealing for 50 volunteers to play the parts of storm victims who have been flooded and then be evacuated at a community resilience event, codenamed Exercise Coventina, at the end of next week, to try out the village’s new emergency response plan.
Yesterday, while the roads and some houses were flooded in Congresbury, the waters did not rise far enough for those volunteers to have to confront flooding for real.
While many of the emergency calls came through to fire and rescue services in Wiltshire and Somerset in the morning, drivers were still becoming trapped in standing flood water on roads into the afternoon. At 2.15pm yesterday, fire crews rescued two people trapped in their car on a flooded road at Curry Mallet, near Taunton.
First Great Western admitted the flooding had led to widespread disruption for rail passengers, particularly on the Bristol to Weston-super-Mare line, and further west into Devon and Cornwall. Passengers trying to get trains south of Bristol into Somerset were faced with cancelled services, blocked lines and replacement buses and taxis. The main London line between Swindon and south Wales was also affected, with slow-running services and cancellations.
Forecasters said the storm warnings would remain in place. Met Office chief forecaster Steve Willington said: “A deep area of low pressure moved north from the Bay of Biscay over the weekend and will persist over the UK until the middle of the week.
“Everyone should be prepared for the effects of heavy rain and strong to gale force winds as they combine to bring the potential for travel disruption and localised flooding over the next few days.
“We encourage the public to keep up to date with the latest forecasts and warnings for their area during this unsettled spell,” he said.
The Environment Agency said it had teams of workers trying to clear ditches, rhynes and streams of debris to help water clear from roads and villages. Flood risk manager Alison Baptiste said: “We are already seeing travel disruption due to the wet weather and could well see flooding across the country this week.
“We strongly urge people to sign up for flood warnings, keep a close eye on local weather forecasts and be prepared for the possibility of flooding.
“We also ask that people stay safe, by staying away from swollen rivers and not attempting to drive through floodwater.
“The Environment Agency already has teams out on the ground checking on flood defences and clearing any blockages in order to reduce the risk of flooding as much as possible,” she added.