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Rainfall across England swamps records

The usual wet has turned to unheard-of flooding in some areas. In southern Europe, heat is the scourge.

July 28, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

TEWKESBURY, ENGLAND — It was raining, but then an English summer wouldn't be English without a shower. The sprinkle quickly became a downpour -- well, not really a downpour, people said, because these are people who have as many words for rain as Eskimos have for snow.

"It was just blankets of rain," said Maggie Clutterbuck, whose daughter's restaurant in the center of town had a basement full of water within hours. "The old people tell me, 80 years of living history, they've never seen anything like this."

Across England, towns and farms are emerging from record-level floods, with more rain in the forecast for Sunday. Last week's deluge dumped in some places two months' worth of rain in a single afternoon, displacing tens of thousands of families and cutting off water to at least 150,000 homes around here as a result of a flooded treatment plant.

Southern Europe, meanwhile, endured a paralyzing heat wave, with dozens of deaths over the last week stemming from triple-digit temperatures.

Here in Tewkesbury and in other towns across England as far north as Yorkshire and well into Oxfordshire, the ground was already saturated and the rivers full when the bottom fell out of the sky on July 20 and 21.

"We had pretty much 12 or 15 hours of really heavy, torrential rain," said Sara Freckleton, spokeswoman for the Tewkesbury Borough Council, which estimates that about 1,000 homes were inundated as a result of the downpour, which quickly overcame storm drains and flooded the nearby Severn and Avon rivers. "It was just much, much more than we have ever had."

Within hours, the roads into Tewkesbury, a town of 76,000 in the rolling hills northwest of Oxford, were underwater, and motorists from the swamped M-5 and M-50 highways streamed into town for shelter. Then the town itself started going under. By the time it was over, Tewkesbury was an island, cut off on every side, and the high ground at the very center of town -- the 12th century Norman abbey and the Bell Hotel and pub across the street from it -- was an island inside an island.

Everyone else needed paddles.

Paul Williams, vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey, opened it for shelter when the town became a gridlock of stranded cars, desperate travelers and, later in the day, newly homeless residents -- and then the floodwaters started seeping into the grand old stone church.

"It was very arkish. I was going around saying, 'Has anyone got any gopherwood here?' " Williams said.

"When the water started coming through the drains into the abbey, I ran off to the Bell. I said, 'Quick, water's gone into the abbey.' They all shot over here to help. It was the first time I ever cleared a pub in favor of a church. It's usually the other way around."

The common thread of almost all the stories is how quickly a downpour became a disaster -- way too fast to do anything but move a few things and look on in fascination and regret.

"It was amazingly quick. It filled our house in half an hour," said Maurice Husband, whose farmhouse in Walton Cardiff, outside Tewkesbury, was flooded up to the second floor, leaving only enough time to rescue the family photos and paintings.

"The most amusing thing was I was talking to my son, who's serving in Afghanistan. He said, 'Are you all right, Dad? What's happening? How's the cat?' "

In the Newtown neighborhood, a swiftly rising plane of water submerged cars and then several houses. Leslie Hamilton, a 45-year-old school lunch supervisor, was sorting through her ruined possessions Friday -- the warped piano, peeling wallpaper, stained sofas.

She and her children were trapped upstairs as the foul, sewage-laced water swirled through their living room and kitchen for four days.

"It was that quick. Within an hour, we were stuck, and couldn't get out," Hamilton said. "We lost absolutely everything."

In southern Europe, the heat wave sparked wildfires, widespread cases of heat exhaustion and general misery in Romania, Macedonia, Greece and beyond.

The Italian government declared a state of emergency Friday in its southern and central regions, where fires have destroyed thousands of acres, including protected forests and their wildlife. Authorities said the fires had killed at least five people, including a couple who died when flames trapped them on a beach.

Both the extreme heat and record rains result from an unusual southern displacement of the jet stream, meteorologists say. The high-altitude freight train of air that normally flows over Greenland and Scandinavia all summer is instead squatting over England and northern France, delivering wet, cool air to England around an enormous low pressure zone and, at the other end of the loop, drawing hot African weather into southern Europe.

"Basically, these conditions we have are absolutely exceptional. Records have been set left, right and center," said Jon Finch of the Center for Ecology and Hydrology at Oxford University.

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