LONDON -- Amid rising anger from local residents and forecasts of more rain, the British government sent military officials to southwest England on Thursday to help deal with floodwaters that have turned whole villages into islands and drowned parts of the country's storybook countryside.
Some rural communities in the county of Somerset have been cut off for weeks by the flooding, the result of storms that have lashed Britain almost nonstop since Christmas. The freak weather is linked to the harsh snowstorms in the United States, where cold fronts have collided with warm fronts in the South and strengthened the jet stream across the Atlantic, stirring a cauldron of precipitation.
Parts of southern England have suffered their wettest January since records started being kept a century ago. More storms are predicted for this weekend and into early February, and flood warnings have been issued for more than two dozen areas.
Up to 45 square miles of the Somerset Levels, a flat expanse near the city of Bristol, lie swamped beneath a plain of muddy brown water. British media have broadcast aerial footage of car roofs and hedges barely visible above the water’s surface.
The government on Thursday dispatched military engineers to Somerset to see how the army might help alleviate the misery of villages such as Muchelney, which has been submerged for a month. Angry residents heckled Environment Secretary Owen Paterson during his visit to the area a few days ago, asking why so little had been done.
Many blame the lack of action on the fact that Somerset, with a population of about 550,000, lies more than 100 miles west of London, making the floods seem literally like a distant problem to lawmakers going about their daily business in the capital.
They also criticize the government for dragging its feet in responding to their request that local waterways be cleared of the silt that has built up over years. That would cost about $6.6 million.
“We’re quite a long way from London. We’re a little bit rural out here,” David Hall, the deputy leader of the Somerset County Council, said in a telephone interview. “We now have a firm commitment from the government to solve the big issue once this particular situation is resolved: to get the rivers dredged. That’s what we’ve been pressing for so long.”
Paterson has also suggested that the army could send in amphibious vehicles to assist residents in the hardest-hit neighborhoods.