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Tempers rise as Britain's flood crisis deepens

1:19 PM, Feb 9, 2014   |    comments
Mike Long displays the goldfish he rescued from his friend's house in the village of Moorland, England, on Feb. 8.
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MOORLAND, England - Water, water, everywhere and a catalog 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 waters.

"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.

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 nation.

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."

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