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In Damp Country, Record-Breaking Rains Flood Britain

A woman walks through floodwaters west of London. A storm left tens of thousands of people in Britain without power Thursday and one man dead, adding to the misery that began with heavy rains back in December.
AFP/Getty Images
A woman walks through floodwaters west of London. A storm left tens of thousands of people in Britain without power Thursday and one man dead, adding to the misery that began with heavy rains back in December.

Parts of England have been underwater for more than six weeks now, since storms began pummeling the west of Great Britain around Christmas. While many of those areas are still submerged, the situation keeps getting worse.

Now the floodwaters are lapping near Windsor Castle, as the Thames overflows its banks. Thousands of people have fled their homes, with more evacuating every day.

You needn't travel far from central London to find the misery: A 20-minute train ride from the city brings you to West Byfleet. A short walk from the station, families and senior citizens are trying to pass the time at a community center in the town of New Haw. These people are all evacuees from nearby villages.

Priscilla Smithers and her four children have arranged chairs around a few air mattresses to create a space for themselves. It's not exactly private, but it's the best they can do. Smithers says she's never seen anything like this flood.

"When Monday come and it was going up, I didn't think really much of it, to be honest. And then when Tuesday come, I thought it'll probably go down, this is probably the highest level it's gonna go. Come Wednesday, it was horrific. It was literally up to the sandbags."

Across the room, 12-year-old Calvin Wai is playing cards with his family. They evacuated two days ago, and he's having a hard time getting used to living in a place without showers.

"We can't go back probably for a month or more." He says he feels "homeless. It's upsetting."

Red Cross worker Martin Shea has been on the job since the storms began before Christmas. Shea used to serve in the army, so he's responded to a lot of disasters. But this one takes even his breath away.

"As far as the volume of it, it's got to be the biggest," says Shea. "We've more or less got what amounts to a huge, deep puddle which goes all the way from Windsor Castle right the way through to a couple of miles up the road from here."

A Record-Breaking Winter

That's a lake about 15 miles long and that's just around here. This winter has broken records all over Britain. Some rivers are at their highest levels ever. Last month was the rainiest January in history.

But other ways of measuring this disaster make it seem less apocalyptic. Around 6,000 homes have flooded. In 2007, British floods inundated 50,000 homes. Those floods also killed 13 people, and so far the death toll this year has been nothing close to that.

Even so, the government is under heavy attack for its response to the disaster.

"This could've been prevented," says Bert Goody, 77, who had to evacuate the mobile home he's lived in for 40 years. "It's going to cost the government a lot more now. They could've done something years ago. It'd be a lot cheaper."

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised that money is no object in the flood response.

During Prime Minister's Questions this week, Labour leader Ed Miliband urged Cameron to reverse plans to lay off 550 environment agency workers who respond to floods.

"If money is no object as he said, is he committing now to reconsider these redundancies?" Miliband asked.

Cameron would not make that commitment. He said the U.K. is spending record amounts on flood prevention, which is only possible because the government has made other tough choices on spending.

"We're only able to make those pledges because we've managed our economy effectively and managed our budgets effectively," Cameron insisted.

The coming days are forecast to bring as much rain as England typically sees in the entire month of February. It's a strong sign that things are likely to get worse before they get better.

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Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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