WEATHER:

Thousands evacuated in U.K. as major flooding follows record drought

LONDON -- More than 1,100 homes across the United Kingdom have had to be evacuated after being flooded over the past week as persistent and at times torrential rains falling on already sodden ground have followed the country's wettest summer on record.

Four wet weather fronts in a row in just 10 days in late November caused misery across Wales and the west of England as rivers burst their banks, and although the immediate outlook is for drier and more settled -- albeit much colder -- weather, many rivers are still rising as the land slowly drains.

"Eight months ago we were in drought, with many reservoirs, rivers and groundwater aquifers at very low levels. But after the very wet spring and summer, and with all this new rainfall, they are all now exceptionally high and the ground is soaked, so the water has nowhere else to go," said a spokeswoman for the Environment Agency.

"The science tells us that it is just too early to say if this is a result of climate change," she added. "But this is certainly the first year that it has gone so dramatically from drought to flood. We have not seen that sort of turnaround before. The records that we have do show that."

Of the 1,038 flooded homes as of Tuesday, nearly 90 percent were in the southwest -- particularly Devon -- Wales and central England.

In the north Wales town of St. Asaph, about 500 residents were evacuated from their homes in the middle of Monday night, taking only what they could carry as the River Elwy rose to record levels and burst through flood defenses. Some used canoes to carry pets and light possessions to safety.

Floods worst in 50 years

Locals said they had experienced nothing on the same scale since the mid-1960s. The Meteorological Office national weather service said the amount of rain that had fallen on the worst-affected areas in the past 10 days had, at up to 150 millimeters (5.9 inches), been roughly double the average for the month as a whole.

But although there had been a lot of rain in a relatively short period of time, the totals were not unprecedented. "The trouble is that we had a really wet summer, with not much respite since, so the rain has fallen on really saturated ground and this has led to flooding fairly quickly," a Met Office spokesman said.

The Met Office said there was some preliminary evidence to show that the incidence of extreme rainfall in the United Kingdom had risen in recent years but added that it was not possible to say whether the increased risk of flooding now being experienced was a result of climate change.

After a series of major floods stretching back decades -- one of the biggest in recent times having been in 1953 as a storm surge in the North Sea hit Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, killing about 2,200 people, of which more than 300 were in the United Kingdom -- successive governments have added to national flood defenses.

But despite several and more localized floods in the United Kingdom -- the most recent major one in 2007 having caused about £3 billion ($4.8 billion) worth of damage -- the government admitted having cut back spending on many flood defense projects as it struggles with a faltering local economy and a financial crisis of confidence in the European Union as a whole.

Flood insurance about to lapse

For swamped U.K. residents in flooded areas, there are more woes ahead. A deal between the government and the insurance industry, under which insurers agreed to provide affordable insurance to high-flood-risk households while the government built flood defenses, is about to lapse, with no prompt replacement in sight.

According to the insurance industry, that could mean up to 200,000 high-risk households not having insurance coverage after the middle of next year. "The agreement -- which was only supposed to be a temporary sticking plaster -- has been in force since 2000. We said to the government back in 2008 that the agreement was no longer sustainable and would end in June 2013," a spokesman for the Association of British Insurers said.

"We said to the government then that we need to sit down and look at ways in which we can -- if indeed we can -- develop a new solution to be in place when the current deal runs out. We continue to talk to the government, but we have hit a stumbling block," he added.

The insurance industry proposal, which the government has rejected on the grounds that as highly profitable financial institutions insurance companies need no government support, is for a government-backed fund to be created by insurers to subsidize insurance premiums for high-flood-risk households.

"It would require a temporary government overdraft facility if in the early years of this fund there was a large, 2007-type flood which meant that the funds within it were not sufficient to pay all claims. But that is something the government has said, as it stands, that it is not [something] they could agree to," the ABI spokesman said. "We have reached an impasse on that, but discussions are ongoing."

An influential all-party parliamentary committee, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, wrote to environment minister Owen Paterson yesterday demanding to know whether government spending cuts had put homeowners more at risk from flooding and what the government planned to do to make sure that affordable flood insurance would still be available to those most at risk after next June.

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