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500 homes evacuated as river swells

Hundreds of people were urged to flee their homes today after a river reached record levels and surged through flood defences while rain continued to wreak havoc across the country.

Householders have already evacuated 900 properties after deluges left many uninhabitable and caused road and rail chaos.

People were warned to leave another 500 homes this morning in the beleaguered city of St Asaph in North Wales after the River Elwy reached a record high, the Environment Agency said.

One 92-year-old man was saved by British Red Cross volunteers after he became trapped in his house as flood waters rose in St Asaph last night.

Other people living in the area were asked to stay with friends and family until the risk subsided.

Though forecasters offered some hope of respite - with rain predicted to ease off - the Environment Agency (EA) warned of a continued flooding threat across north-east England, North Wales and Northamptonshire.

River levels are set to peak in the next 48 hours, putting further properties at risk, with the Thames, Trent and the Severn deemed to be of particular concern.

Rising groundwater levels are also threatening to leave homes in Winterbourne Abbas, Dorset, under water.

Three people have died since flooding began, and the latest figures show around 960 properties have flooded since Wednesday.

John Curtin, of the EA, said: "Further flooding is expected in the next few days and communities across the country, particularly in north-east England, North Wales, Northamptonshire, are urged to remain especially vigilant.

"Environment Agency flood defences have protected some 55,000 homes and our teams are continuing to work around the clock with local emergency services to keep communities safe. People should sign up for free flood warnings, keep up to date with the latest situation on our website, and stay away from dangerous flood water."

The EA has 266 flood alerts and 200 flood warnings in place in England and Wales.

There was further disruption for thousands of drivers, while train services were subject to hold-ups in the West Country. The North East also experienced rail problems, with buses having to replace trains on some routes.

Forecasters said the heavy rain would soon abate but with some areas already saturated, any wet weather could still cause problems.

Meanwhile, freezing temperatures are expected to take hold of the UK over the next few days, with snow forecast to hit many coastal areas.

Sleet has already fallen over the Pennines, with wintry showers predicted in the Scottish mountains today.

Gemma Plumb, a spokeswoman for MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: "Although the rain was lighter last night than previous days, the rain fell on already saturated surfaces adding to the risk of flooding.

"It will become increasingly drier in most places as we go through today, with just East Anglia and south east England holding on to the rain.

"By the end of the day most of the rain would have lifted but temperatures will feel noticeably colder this week, dropping to freezing overnight."

She added that the drier weather is unlikely to mark the end of the heavy rain, with early hints that more will return at the beginning of next week after a short respite for the battered UK.

The continued flooding risk comes after claims yesterday that hundreds of thousands of homes may be left without flood cover due to a row between ministers and the insurance industry over how future flooding bills would be covered.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) had claimed that talks about a "safety net" deal to ensure those in flood-risk areas can continue to afford their policies were at "crisis point".

Last night Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said talks were ongoing - and that ministers were committed to securing a good deal for both householders and the taxpayer.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Paterson said it was too soon to quantify the full scale of the damage while the rain continued.

Parts of a new 45 million defence scheme in Nottingham - which was opened in September - have been put into action for the first time, while teams have deployed mobile defences to protect properties in Oxford, the EA said.

The agency has sent 110,000 warnings to people at risk of flooding. It said defences have protected almost 55,000 properties.

Meanwhile, councils have placed thousands of tonnes of sandbags, water pumps and emergency accommodation at the ready.

Some local authorities have even been loaning washing machines, cookers and fridges to those whose homes have been devastated by the weather.

Several highways teams have also suspended roadworks to concentrate on sweeping away debris and rescuing stranded motorists.

Mike Jones, chairman of the Local Government Association's environment board, said: "Staff have been working around the clock helping to protect homes, emptying gullies to alleviate road flooding and fighting through the elements to ensure that older and more vulnerable people are not put at risk and can still access the council help they rely upon."

The EA later issued two severe flood warnings in Wales - one for St Asaph - indicating a potential danger to life.

Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to visit flood-hit areas later today.

His spokesman said: "What we have seen in recent days is an exceptional amount of rain falling on often waterlogged ground and therefore floods happening in some cases very, very quickly.

"Actually, a lot has been done to improve flood defences since 2007 and we have prioritised flood protection and are investing considerable amounts over the next few years to ensure that homes are protected properly."

He added: "We are prioritising flood resources for flood protection. We are working very closely with the Environment Agency to deal with the present situation but we think we have the right system in place."

The EA said the Elwy had reached 14ft 3in (4.35m) at St Asaph - making it more than 3ft (1m) deeper than its previous record of 11ft 4in (3.47m) in November 2009 - and it was still rising.

The typical river level range at this location is between 3ft (0.90m) and 6ft 7in (2.02m).

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