UK residents grapple with poor flood response | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.02.2014
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UK residents grapple with poor flood response

Hundreds of homes have been hit by severe flooding in southeast England after the River Thames burst its banks. Flood victims say the government has failed to deal with the crisis.

The residents of Thames riverside community of Wraysbury in Berkshire to the West of London have certainly never seen flooding like this. Muddied, contaminated water has overwhelmed homes, gardens and entire streets. Residents in rubber waders tread carefully through the chest-high water along the Old Ferry Drive, salvaging precious belongings from their homes and rescuing bewildered pets. River levels are at a record high and still rising as rain continues to pour down on sodden ground.

It is the UK's wettest winter in 250 years, says the country's Environment Agency.

Some may argue the crisis is down to the force of nature, but it is the politicians who are coming under fire from frustrated flood victims across the country for failing to protect their properties and livelihoods better.

The water started spilling over the banks of the River Thames at Wraysbury shortly after Christmas. Now Peter Kavanagh and his wife Erica Matlow, a retired couple who live alongside the river, are surrounded by waist-deep floodwater.

Peter Kavanagh outside his flooded home with the boat he depends on for transport (photo: Kitty Logan)

Peter Kavanagh depends on a boat to get around in his neighborhood these days

"We're not really cut off. He's got an amphibious car outside," Erica Matlow said. Her husband also has a small paddle boat moored alongside the front steps of their home.

But underneath the bravado, Erica Matlow cannot hide her anxiety. Aside from the worry of the flood water lurking in the basement, swirling beneath the living room windows and threatening to invade the rest of their home, life surrounded by floodwater is no easy existence.

The couple are adamant they will not evacuate, despite the conditions. But many of their neighbors have left and the area around the house is eerily quiet.

The sloping road leading to their house has merged with the river, turning the street into something akin to a Venetian canal. Peter Kavanagh is paddling back home, transporting parts for a generator in his small boat.

Other residents are heading in the opposite direction, off to stay with relatives, or in nearby hotels. Some were prompted to leave when the sewage system broke down. Another woman is carrying the contents of her freezer in a boat, having lost power in her home.

Little help from the government

Kavanagh's house still has electricity, but with water now just 40 centimeters (16 inches) away from flooding the rest of the house, he too has to prepare for the worst. Like everyone here, he has to be resourceful, but there is underlying resentment that the government has done little to help so far.

"Nothing," says Erica Matlow, when asked about the government's response. "But there are volunteer flood wardens. They work really very hard to help."

At the end of the road, these wardens are checking on an evacuated property and standing by with canoes to escort residents to and from areas cut off by water. It is a service Matlow is thankful for. She feared for her life when she tripped and fell in the fast-moving floodwater, as she was trying to wade home.

Flood volunteers check on an abandoned house in Wraysbury (photo: Kitty Logan)

Residents have praised the efforts of volunteers who come check up on them

Many locals share the sentiment that the government should be doing more and have been venting their anger. The authorities have started to respond to the outcry by bringing in the military to the area, along with truckloads of sandbags.

But there is a feeling there that this effort comes too late. Another Wraysbury resident, Jane Campbell, who is helping her parents evacuate their flooded home, says more contingency planning should have been done to prevent the flooding.

"The rivers haven't been dredged in years," she said. "When I was a little girl, you used to see the dredging boats. Over the years it's come to a stop. I haven't seen them in years. And all the ditches haven't been cleared."

The Environment Agency, tasked with managing flood prevention in the UK, has come under fire in other areas too, for not doing enough to prevent flooding and assist those affected by the crisis. A spokesman for the agency admits there have been shortcomings, but says it is making the best of available resources.

Too little, too slow?

"There's always more we can do," he said. "What we do is use the money we have to make sure that the greatest number of people, homes and businesses are protected from flood risk."

The Agency also blames the recent extreme weather for the crisis and has defended its efforts to support the affected areas. "The country has faced an extraordinary combination of weather conditions over the last six weeks. Environment Agency crews continue to work around the clock across the country, deploying demountable defences, repairing damaged coastal defences, deploying sandbags along riverbanks, clearing river blockages, monitoring water levels and sending out flood warnings," the spokesman said. "Along the River Thames, the Environment Agency is working closely with emergency services and local authorities to respond to flooding."

British Prime Minister David Cameron has also been out assessing flood-hit areas of the UK. He too has faced criticism for his initial response to the crisis, which was perceived by some to be too slow. On Tuesday (11.02.2014), he promised to spend more on flood prevention.

"We are in for the long haul, but the government will do everything it can to coordinate the nation's resources," Cameron said. "If money needs to be spent, it will be spent; if resources are required we will provide them; if the military can help, they will be there. We must do everything but it will take time to put these things right."

Flooded car on Wraysbury street (photo: Kitty Logan)

Wraysbury residents are running out of time - they are fighting water on two fronts

But the people in Wraysbury are running out of time. They are fighting water on two fronts - it is not just spilling over from the River Thames, but the ground water is also rising, as the earth below is saturated from weeks of heavy rain. Some feel that mistakes were made by building on flood plains near the river, but Mr Kavanagh and his wife, who are both boating enthusiasts, believe the river flow could be managed better to ease the problem.

But there is no simple or quick solution. He too believes ditches and rivers should be dredged, but that would not be enough to prevent flooding. "All they can do is [to] build a bypass," he says. "This is the narrowest past of the Thames. Because it's a bit of a bottleneck it rises quite fast."

Numerous communities grapple with flooding

It is not just the people of Wraysbury who are struggling to cope. Flooding is now affecting numerous communities along the River Thames and water levels are rising in rivers in other parts of the country too. Villages on the Somerset levels have been under water for more than five weeks, with numerous homes ruined by the floods.

People there have also complained bitterly about lack of government planning and support by the Environment Agency. But this is no longer just a problem for those directly affected by floodwater. The country's transport network is also in trouble. In several areas, the rail networks have had to shut down due to waterlogged tracks and some roads are also closed.

But Mr Kavanagh is determined to carry on life as best he can, using his own local transport system. Donning his waders and boots, he sets out again in his boat. "I have been ferrying people back and forth," he says. "We're retired, so we can be flexible. It's harder for people to have to get to work, or who have children."

The people of Wraysbury are resigned to living with the flooding for some days, if not weeks to come. And once the flood waters recede, the clean-up of contaminated mud begins. Life here will not be back to normal for many months.

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