Britain's wettest January on record yields severe flooding – and blame

Prime Minister Cameron is facing harsh criticism for his response to flooding in which thousands have been evacuated, the Thames burst its banks, and neighbors have battled over sandbags. 

Lefteris Pitarakis
Children paddle an inflatable boat through the center of the village of Datchet, England, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. The River Thames has burst its banks after reaching its highest level in years.

Every last patch of Mervyn Price's 300-acre farm in this lush part of western England is temporarily lost under several inches of water. The elderly farmer hopes it will be dry by the time he plants crops of potatoes and peas, but the wheat he has already sown has been ruined, "and it's very bad for the sheep." 

His 100 ewes started lambing this week, in the heaviest rainfall Mr. Price can remember. He has moved them upland from the banks of the River Lugg, on which his farm is situated, "but the rain won't make it any easier for them, I can tell you." 

From rural farmers to suburban commuters, residents of flood-hit southwestern England are battling against the wettest January on record. Around 5,000 homes have been evacuated – most of them in the worst affected area, the Somerset Levels – with many more expected. The crisis has been something of a disaster for the government, with flood victims bewailing a slow and inadequate response and ministers publicly assigning blame. The economic cost is also likely to be high, both for local businesses, insurance companies and the state.

This week, the River Thames – which runs through London – burst its banks. Of the 16 severe flood warnings issued by the Environment Agency, 14 – all of them "severe," signifying danger to life – are along the Thames, in affluent commuter villages. 

No one in such areas has been left untouched. Parts of the Great Windsor Park, near Queen Elizabeth II's castle, are so wet that the queen's head housekeeper and one of her pages, who live in the park, have been evacuated and put up in the castle. 

Few have been so lucky. As anger levels have risen with the rivers, there have been reports of fights over sandbags and opportunistic looters. Some villagers have complained of a scarcity of help from government or the Royal Navy, which has been drafted to help evacuate the worst hit areas.

Politicians, who appear to have been as ill prepared for the rain as those directly affected by it, have this week sought to limit the inevitable political fallout.

Prime Minister David Cameron returned to Somerset on Tuesday for the second time in four days, canceling his cabinet meeting. He has said the scene there is "biblical." Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also pulled on his boots for a visit to Dorset, farther south.

Tuesday, Mr. Cameron said during a press conference at 10 Downing St. that "Money is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed we will spend it." He also announced that he was canceling his planned visit to the Middle East in order to address the crisis.

'It's all your fault' 

It is difficult to know what part bureaucratic or political inadequacies have played. 

Residents of the worse-affected areas have complained forcefully, with some calling for part of Britain's overseas aid budget to be diverted to flood-hit Britons.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles raised hackles on Sunday, saying that Chris Smith, chairman of the quasi-governmental Environment Agency, had given bad advice to ministers. Mr. Smith hit back, telling the BBC that a government-set limit of spending meant the agency could spend only £400,000 (about $656,000) in Somerset.

He has been backed up in this claim by CIWEM, the water engineers' professional body.

Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, complained to Downing Street about a "grandstanding" Mr. Pickles; the opposition Labour Party used an old rural metaphor when it said ministers were fighting like "ferrets in a bag."

What no one doubts is that the weather this winter is unusually and unexpectedly dramatic. The country's Meteorological Office says the rain has been driven by a persistent track of storms related to an unusually strong North Atlantic jetstream that usually flows north of Scotland and is more southerly now.

"Who is to blame?" asks Smith. "The weather. It has thrown everything at us we could possibly have imagined." 

"You can't say climate change is responsible for any single weather event, but you can say this is the sort of extreme event we will get more frequently," he says.

Retreat – or build more concrete defenses?

Economists, meanwhile, are working out how the floods might affect damage Britain's resurgent economy.

Some note that previous episodes of bad weather have knocked at least 0.1 percentage points off Britain's GDP.

And environmentalists and engineers are working out what can be done to mitigate the effects of future bouts of heavy rainfall.

Professor Colin Thorne, a flooding expert at the University of Nottingham, believes, like many of his peers, that "retreat" – giving up more land to water – is inevitable.

But concrete flood defenses will also be part of the answer. Because they are expensive, and the benefit of any government spending has to outweigh the cost, this will prompt another big question: It is the countryside, or villages and towns, that are most deserving of protection?

Back in Herefordshire, Price thinks he knows the answer to that question already.

"I believe there are a lot of schemes in towns and that, in turn, has made it worse for farmers," he says. "There's been no consideration of farmers, there won't be any compensation, and there won't be any thanks for what we're doing, either."

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