Floods, heat, then floods again, as England is battered by wild weather

A cyclist rides through water on a flooded road in The Nine Elms district of London on July 25, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (NYTIMES) - For the second time in a matter of two weeks, heavy rainfall has wreaked havoc across London, flooding train stations, stranding motorists and forcing at least two hospitals to redirect patients from their emergency rooms.

The downpour, which dumped about a month's worth of rain in some areas on Sunday (July 25), was part of a broader pattern of extreme weather causing disruption and destruction around the world this summer. Fires, floods and heat waves have ravaged areas from the Pacific Northwest to central China.

The latest rainstorm came at the tail end of a heatwave that had led Public Health England to issue an alert for the first time ever, warning people to stay cool indoors, close curtains in rooms that face the sun, drink plenty of water and avoid excess alcohol.

The heat broke as thunderstorms swept across southern England this weekend, bringing torrential downpours that dumped a month's worth of rain in some areas in just a few hours.

The London Fire Brigade wrote on Twitter that it had responded to more than 1,000 calls as people needed to be rescued from cars suddenly submerged or escape homes as the waters rose.

Heavy rainfall flooded emergency departments of Newham Hospital and led to "operational issues" at Whipps Cross Hospital. Service on the London Underground was disrupted as water poured into several stations.

Thames Water, a company responsible for Greater London's sewage and water services, said on Monday that the rainfall had led to surface flooding and that crews had been working through the night to make repairs.

By Monday morning, the floodwaters had largely subsided, although Britain's weather service said that warnings remained in effect in parts of the country.

The Fire Brigade warned that generators used to dry out old buildings in the aftermath could have released carbon dioxide into the air, and it cautioned against wading into possibly contaminated floodwaters.

After being battered by rain, scorched by heat and then whipped by rain again in a matter of weeks, Londoners were asking the question that so many around the world are this summer: What is going on with the weather?

While individual weather events are hard to directly attribute to climate change, there is now broad scientific agreement that the extreme weather the world is experiencing this summer is being fuelled by those changes.

In London, which is built on the River Thames floodplain, the risks of sudden heavy rains have long been a concern. In one of the most ambitious engineering projects of its day, a sprawling barrier was completed in 1982 to protect central London from tidal surges.

A pedestrian crosses through deep water on a flooded road in the Nine Elms district of London, on July 25, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

The fear then, and even greater now, is that heavy rainfall could be pushed back up the river by the sea.

Consisting of some 10 metal barriers stretching over 500m, the gates can be closed to allow the water levels from the sea and river to equalise, preventing surges that could spill over the river banks. But the barrier cannot stop the direct impact of torrential rains like those that have recently lashed the country.

With sections of London's infrastructure dating to the Victorian era, even a light rainfall can cause problems.

A 2019 report found that the city's drainage system was in need of dire repair, and about 37,000 homes are at high or medium risk of tidal or river flooding.

To help deal with the drainage problem, the city is building a giant tunnel, the Thames Tideway, through the heart of London.

Designed to store and move vast quantities of raw sewage and rainwater across the city, it is scheduled to be completed in 2023.

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