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Counting the cost of Westcountry's worst floods for decades

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 27, 2012

Street art on the River Exe bridges in Exeter clearly shows the rise in water levels. Pictures: Brian Garwood

Street art on the River Exe bridges in Exeter clearly shows the rise in water levels. Pictures: Brian Garwood

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Communities in the South West have been coming to terms with some of the worst storms and flooding in recent memory.

Clean-up operations have begun in earnest after the region bore the brunt of terrible weather conditions sweeping across the UK.

Some 450 homes were flooded as widespread disruption continued in Devon and Cornwall after almost a week of relentless rain.

Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service dealt with 875 flooding incidents out of a total of almost 1,400 incidents since the middle of last week.

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The Cornwall fire and rescue service received more than 520 emergency calls over the two days, as around 114 properties were flooded across the county.

Crews carried out 85 rescues from flooding over that period, from properties and vehicles, involving 218 people.

Yesterday the Environment Agency still had 39 flood warnings and 60 flood alerts in place across the South West as rivers reached record high levels.

Meanwhile Devon County Council has called on the Government for urgent help to repair Devon's roads hit by more floods.

Leaders in the county say they need urgent Government financial support to help communities recover and to keep the county's economy moving and growing.

Devon County Council leader, John Hart met with Environment Secretary Owen Paterson as he toured the county yesterday.

Mr Paterson said: "My sympathy is with those suffering from floods – the young, elderly and families. The situation is a travesty for those forced to leave their homes.

"Although 450 homes were evacuated in Devon and Cornwall, our flood defences saved thousands more and prevented numerous other difficulties."

Council leader Mr Hart said: "Obviously there is a real human cost from this weekend's appalling weather and my heart goes out to the families I've met today whose homes have been ruined.

"However there is a very serious economic cost to these events which affects all of us in Devon. I want the Government to recognise that we need to build stronger resilience into our whole transport network as we are likely to face more and more extreme weather conditions in the future."

Many experts said conditions were the worst they had ever seen in their lifetime.

Rail passengers and motorists endured further travel delays yesterday with train services depleted and more roads closed by flooding.

Train services in the South West were among the worst hit in the country, where signal failures added to commuters' difficulties.

In Devon a landslip at Honiton and flooding at Axminster meant buses had to replace trains between Exeter St David's and Yeovil Junction. Flooding led to no train services being able to run between Tiverton Parkway and Exeter St David's.

Disruptions continued for motorists as several major roads in the region remained closed, including the A377 between Exeter and Crediton, and the A396 at Cove, near Tiverton.

In Cornwall the A39 – the main road between Truro and Falmouth – was closed at Perranarworthal after the river has burst its banks. Highways engineers are now concerned that sub-zero temperatures forecast later in the week will further compound damage to the network.

The village of Kennford near Exeter was one of the worst affected places in Devon.

Torrents of water poured down the main village street on Saturday night, flooding dozens of homes and forcing numerous families to evacuate.

Residents waded through waist-deep water in the village during the peak period at around 11pm. Mr Paterson visited the village to see the extent of the problems and speak with those hit hardest.

Liz Pezzani, who has lived in the village for more than 30 years, described the devastation to her cottage.

"The water came into the living room and just keep going up and up and up. It put the fire out and logs were floating across the room. I have never seen anything like it."

Dean Storer, who lives with his wife and one-year-old son in the village, said: "We have lost everything, including my wedding ring, our marriage certificate and birth certificates."

Howard Milton, chairman of Kennford parish council, spoke of the misery as his shop was flooded. He said: "When I came back to the village on Saturday night it was like a war zone. The residents were very alarmed and sirens were going off everywhere.

"But we're a resilient community and there's a real spirit among the people."

Martin Weiler, Devon and Cornwall area manager for the Environment Agency, said: "The flooding has been devastating for the young, elderly and families here. My heart goes out to all those affected. This is as bad as it gets." Councillor Kevin Lake, Teignbridge District Council's executive spokesperson for environmental services, said: "For the young families, it's devastating in the run-up to Christmas. But everyone has worked hard to minimise the damage and a recovery programme is in place."

Residents in Helston reported floodwater of up to 2ft (61cm) surging through the town at the weekend. Four families were evacuated as the Environment Agency placed a severe weather warning on the area around the River Cober, indicating a real risk to life.

Ambulance crews from across the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust received 6,455 calls – 552 more than the Trust would normally expect to receive at this time of year.

Drier weather is forecast for the rest of the week.

Labour blasts flood defence spending cuts

Labour has renewed its criticism of Government cuts to flood defence spending after households were battered by storms and torrential rain in the last week.

The broadside came as MPs from across the Westcountry raised concerns about the region’s infrastructure, and the prospect of homes and businesses being without insurance in the future, during an urgent ministerial statement to the Commons.

The Government earlier this year announced £7.4 million was going to 22 new or ongoing flood defence schemes in Devon and Cornwall from April. But the flood prevention cash was £4.4 million less than the £11.8 million doled out to the two counties in 2011/12.

Labour claims flood investment will be cut by £400 million in total across the country, and that ministers are playing “Russian roulette” as homes are at risk.

Mary Creagh, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, said: “Everyone’s thoughts will be with those hit by this latest severe flooding. I want to salute the fantastic work of all the emergency services in Devon and Cornwall, and of local people helping one another.

“Extreme weather conditions are likely to be more common in future. The Tory-led Government has cut investment in flood defences by 27% despite the risk of flooding increasing.

“The Government needs to get a grip on flood investment for the South West and put in place an insurance framework that will ensure high-risk homes are able to access the protection they need.”

Around 150 proposed flood defence schemes to protect thousands of Westcountry homes and businesses will not get state support this year.

Projects waiting for money include refurbishments in Exeter and Crackington Haven, North Cornwall, which was battered by flash floods at the same time as Boscastle in 2005.

But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs argues it has shielded flood spending from cuts and has committed £2.17 billion to safeguard properties by 2015.

In his statement, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson offered condolences to the family and friends of those killed.

He told MPs: “Heavy rainfall is not unusual at this time of year, however we have experienced bands of low pressure over the weekend bringing often intense rainfall falling on catchments that are now saturated.”

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