Page last updated at 20:37 GMT, Thursday, 30 October 2008

'Freak' hail causes flood chaos

Cars were left tightly packed in ice after the storms

Severe flooding, which left a Devon town virtually cut off, was caused by a "freak" overnight hailstorm, the Met Office has said.

Devon and Somerset Fire Service described the situation after 1ft (0.3m) of hail fell in the Ottery St Mary area as "absolute chaos".

Floodwater rose up to 4ft (1.2m). Some people in remote houses were airlifted.

A woman in labour was one of about 30 people rescued from flooded homes and vehicles, police said.

I woke up this morning and the car was missing. It had obviously floated away
Martin Ashfield, local resident
Cars in the town were left tightly packed in ice after about 1ft (0.3m) of hail fell in just two hours between 0100 and 0300 GMT.

Roads into the low-lying town became torrents, ripping huge chunks out of the hedges, tearing up the road surface and spreading silt and rubble.

The weather also caused thousands of pounds' worth of damage and hit a number of businesses.

The storm was described as a "freak event" by the Met Office, which said the weather which hit the town was "hugely localised".

"It seemed to be centred on Ottery St Mary," a spokesman said.

Cars in flooding (Pic by Richard Wells)
Flash floods engulfed homes and cars

Rhianne Thorneywood, whose house had flooded in minutes, told BBC News: "I've never seen lightning like it, and rain.

"We didn't realise it was hail and snow until I looked out and saw what I thought was foam floating on the water, but it was ice."

Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service said 25 people were rescued from flooded homes in Ottery St Mary and Feniton.

They were taken to the hospital in Ottery St Mary, which was used as a shelter for about 20 people who had nowhere else to go.

Susanne Reed, from the fire control centre, said it was the worst flooding she had seen in 25 years.

"It has been absolute chaos. It started just after midnight when we were out rescuing people stuck in their cars in flood water.

"It got worse and worse and one crew got stuck in a 6ft (1.8m) [hail] drift," she said.

Baby Nathan and parents
Juliet Hall was in labour when she was trapped by the floods

Juliet Hall, who was pregnant, was in labour and on her way to hospital when she was rescued by emergency crew from the flooded A30 nearby.

She was taken to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital by ambulance and gave birth there to a son.

The Environment Agency said two vehicles fell into Ottery St Mary's Firs Brook, one getting wedged on top of the other, which may have exacerbated the flooding.

Car owner Martin Ashfield said: "I woke up this morning and the car was missing. It had obviously floated away.

"The Environment Agency called me and told me where it was."

Elizabeth Devay, who was staying with five members of her family in a caravan near Ottery St Mary, said: "We heard a lot of rain and huge hailstones hitting the caravan roof.

"When we opened the door there were floods outside the caravan knee deep with the hail floating on top. By the time we got out of the door it was up to our waist."

Cars in flood
Martin Ashfield's car was swept away by the flood

John and Joan Burrows, who farm nearby, lost about 30 sheep. Joan said: "Others are sheltering on the old railway line and we're hoping they don't try and jump in the water."

The town had been preparing for a carnival this weekend, ahead of its annual Tar Barrel Rolling festival on 5 November.

Devon and Cornwall Police said that roads in the area were "treacherous" and a number of routes were closed because of flooding or ice. Rail services were also disrupted.

In Boscastle in Cornwall, six premises were flooded overnight because of a blocked storm drain.

The Environment Agency has flood warnings in place on the Rivers Otter, Axe, Clyst, Coly, Culm, Isle and Yarty in Devon.

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