A resident cycles through Thames River floodwater in the
village of Datchet. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
Water, water, everywhere and a catalogue of blunders
pointing to the British government. That's the view of many
flood-hit residents of the Somerset Levels, where for weeks
tempers have been rising along with the historically high
"It's gone from bad to worse," said George Davey, 79, a
long-time resident of Moorland, an all-but-submerged village
on this coastal plain in southwest England that is the
unofficial epicenter of some of the most extreme flooding
Britain has ever experienced.
The River Thames burst its banks on Monday (local time) after
reaching its highest level in years, flooding riverside towns
upstream of London.
Residents and British troops had piled up sandbags in a bid
to protect properties from the latest bout of flooding to hit
Britain. But the floods overwhelmed their defenses Monday,
leaving areas including the center of the village of Datchet
Moorland's temporary flood defenses have been under
near-constant threat in recent days. On Saturday, Davey -
dressed in standard rural-issue flat cap, green Wellington
boots and thick cotton plaid jacket - was helping neighbors
salvage what possessions they could.
He was clearly upset, not only because his own house had
already been overwhelmed, but also at what he said were the
shortcomings of the response from Prime Minister David
Cameron's government. Britain's worst winter rainfall in 250
years has stranded some residents on a 40-square-mile patch
of land since Christmas and wreaked havoc on dozens of homes.
"They've just taken all the sandbags and chucked them in the
middle of the fields. That Environment Agency guy, he ought
to be fired," he said.
Davey's "guy" is Lord Smith, the chairman of the Environment
Agency who has been heavily criticized for choosing to stop
dredging local rivers in the late 1990s despite repeated
requests from concerned citizens to do just that.
The British government has now acknowledged that it made a
mistake on the dredging issue and has pledged tens of
millions in support, but it took some public relations
prodding from Prince Charles, who in visiting Somerset on
Tuesday described what he saw as "shocking."
In January, Britain saw the most rainfall since King George
was on the throne in 1760. For months, rising sea, river,
surface and ground water have combined with abnormally strong
winter storms to devastate communities up and down the
But it's the major agricultural seat of Somerset that has
done the heaviest lifting, and the abiding impression from
people from the region is clear: The Somerset Levels have
been left to rot.
"They've been a bit slow, haven't they," said Dave Barnes, a
machine driver who was helping to erect flood defenses on the
road into Moorland on Saturday. "If this had been in some
other country there would have been help straight away."
Ordinarily, Somerset is a kind of farmer's paradise, known
for its distinctive cheeses, for the pirate-like lilt of
inhabitants' distinct West Country accent and for the
Glastonbury music festival, Britain's answer to Woodstock.
Over the weekend, though, Moorland was a hub of activity more
reminiscent of an outlying military base. High-wheeled farm
vehicles buzzed up and down the last of the fully passable
streets delivering sandbags and other materials for
ramshackle sea defenses. Emergency officials in
high-visibility jackets and hard hats clustered around sodden
fields taking notes on clipboards. Specialized, outsized
pumps moved water around with great force.
Ex-military man Mike Long was evacuating a bowl of goldfish
from his friend's house. "We've got the things they really
need. But there's only so much you can do," he said.
As of Sunday, about 16 Moorland families were insisting that
they wanted to go down with their respective ships.
One of those was farmer James Hall and his partner Becky
Riley, both 32, who were busy getting their cattle and other
farm animals to higher ground.
"I was just starting to get rolling with this business and
now it's all gone terribly wrong," Hall said. "The response
has been way too slow. I'm not saying if the river was
dredged there wouldn't be any flooding but it wouldn't be on
this scale. But at the moment everyone is focused on saving
what they can. Pretty much all my farmland is under water."