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British PM visits scene of massive floods

Published on 21/11/2009

Cockermouth - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Saturday visited the scene of massive floods that killed one person and stranded hundreds after the heaviest rainfall on record in England.

Some 314 millimetres of rain fell in 24 hours over scenic Cumberland in northwest England earlier in the week, causing floods that swept a policeman to his death and destroyed bridges.

Hundreds of stranded residents were airlifted out.

Those left were bracing themselves for further forecasted rainfall after downpours described by weather experts as "a one in 500 year event".

Brown and his Environment Secretary Hilary Benn met members of the emergency services in the town of Penrith at the start of their visit, praising them for their "superb response".

"What you have done over the last few days is tackle one of the greatest rainfalls we’ve seen in our country and you’ve done it with such superb organisation that I wanted to tell you on behalf of the whole country how proud we are of you," he said.

Four bridges collapsed in the area, with an estimated 1,100 homes affected by flooding and several hundred people displaced.

In Cockermouth, the town worst hit by the floodwaters, helicopters winched people to safety and rescue boats negotiated streets turned into canals after the Derwent and Cocker rivers burst their banks.

More than 200 people were forced to leave their homes as the bridges collapsed into the raging rivers and main roads were blocked.

The market town was the birthplace of poet William Wordsworth and Fletcher Christian, who led the 1789 mutiny on the Bounty.

Cockermouth sits on the edge of the Lake District, a picturesque national park containing England’s highest mountains.

Queen Elizabeth II sent a message saying she was "deeply concerned and saddened" by the flooding and thanked emergency workers for their "selfless efforts."

"My thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been affected and whose homes and livelihoods have been damaged," the head of state said.

The Environment Agency said four severe flood warnings remained in place in the area.

Julian Mayes, a forecaster with MeteoGroup UK, said between 20 millimetres and 40 millimetres of rain was likely over western Britain in the 24 hours from 0600 GMT Saturday.

The showers were likely to give river levels a "temporary upward blip" and flood plain areas would remain flooded, he said.

"What happened was at least a one in 500 year event. It was an historic day which broke all records," he added.

The dead policeman, Bill Barker, who would have been 45 on Saturday, was directing motorists away from a bridge over the Derwent in the coastal town of Workington on Thursday.

The bridge collapsed into the surging river and his body was recovered on a beach.

Brown said he was sorry to learn of the death, calling Barker "a very brave and heroic man".

Floods also hit neighbouring Ireland, where troops were sent to assist emergency services in six cities and towns in the south and west after days of sustained rainfall.

A number of rivers burst their banks, roads were closed and trains cancelled in the worst-hit areas.