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Flooded rivers crest across western Britain; thousands still without clean water

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Posted: July 24, 2007 2:32 p.m.
Updated: August 8, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    NEWBRIDGE, England — Swollen rivers crested Tuesday across western England, as emergency crews struggled to restore electricity and clean water, and residents piled sandbags against doors to keep floodwaters from their homes.
    At least 350,000 people face the next several days without clean water, authorities said.
    The River Thames crested in Oxford, but communities downstream — such as Pangbourne, Purley and Reading — were scrambling to prepare for surges late Tuesday or Wednesday.
    ‘‘We wanted a riverside pub, not a pub in the river,’’ said Stephen Parker, who with his wife worked to clean up the Maybush Pub in Newbridge, 60 miles west of London. Plates with leftover roasts still lay on the tables after Sunday customers fled when the Thames overflowed its banks.
    Torrential rains have hit Britain in the past month — nearly 5 inches fell in some areas on Friday alone — and more downpours are forecast in the coming days.
    Among the hardest hit areas was Tewkesbury, north of Gloucester, where rising water entered the 900-year-old abbey church for the first time since 1760.
    Newborn twins died in Tewkesbury after their mother, trapped by floods, went into labor at home and a paramedic could not reach them, police said, Two Royal Air Force helicopters were sent in and took the mother and children to Cheltenham Hospital, but the premature twins died.
    Some 900 tanker trucks were sent to the Gloucestershire region with emergency water rations.
    Gloucestershire County Council’s chief executive, Peter Bungard, said flood levels at Tewkesbury would have to fall nearly 36 inches before drinking water supplies could be restored.
    ‘‘The very, very best forecast is seven days,’’ Bungard told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. ‘‘I’m really, really worried — 350,000 people is hard to imagine, and amongst those are very vulnerable people.’’
    Some 48,000 homes lost power Monday as the River Severn flooded the Castlemeads electricity substation in Gloucester, 115 miles west of London. Power was restored overnight, police said.
    At Walham substation, which serves all of Gloucestershire, frantic efforts by emergency teams kept floodwaters at bay. Fire brigades and troops from the army and navy were helping to pump water out, said Nick Windsor of the National Grid Group, which oversees the electrical system.
    The Environment Agency said the Severn at Gloucester crested just inches below the level that would have threatened the city center and a power station serving 500,000 homes.
    London itself is protected in the east by the Thames Barrier, the world’s largest moveable flood defense, which closes to seal off part of the upper Thames from the sea. To the west, the city is protected by several defense measures including the Jubilee River, a 7-mile-long flood diversion channel.
    Sir Nick Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross, said he was shocked by what he saw overnight in Gloucester and Tewkesbury, and warned people to stay out of the water.
    ‘‘It was ridiculous to see young children playing in the water as if it was the beach at Blackpool,’’ Young said. ‘‘It is unsafe water, absolutely filthy, polluted by sewage, and people really need to be advised to stay out of it.’’
    Some residents lined up for free water at grocery stores, while others took to canoes and small boats to ferry food and water to housebound residents. Severn Trent Water planned to have 900 tankers in place to supply fresh water in the worst-hit areas Tuesday.
    Total damages from the flooding resulting from torrential rains in June and July could cost insurers more than $6 billion, the Fitch Ratings agency said Tuesday.
    Britain has had one of its wettest summers on record — a sharp contrast to last summer, which was one of its driest and hottest.

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