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Cobra to meet over storm problems

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is expected to chair a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergencies committee tomorrow in response to the flooding which has torn down power lines, closed roads and flooded homes.

The minister said he has been chairing meetings throughout the day to ensure that the Environment Agency and local councils "are on the ground and offering all possible support to their communities".

He is due to chair a Cabinet Office Briefing Room meeting in London tomorrow morning as agencies plan their response to the problem.

Mr Paterson said: "We will remain in touch with local councils in at-risk areas.

"With a number of flood alerts for the South East for tomorrow, including several areas which have previously been flooded, I urge everyone in affected areas to sign up to EA flood warnings and follow the advice issued."

It comes as emergency services continue to search for people missing in ferocious weather as the first storms of 2014 brought misery.

Roads have been closed, while around 300 properties in the South and East of England are without electricity.

A 27-year-old man is feared dead in Cornwall after he was swept out to sea while celebrating the new year on the beach with friends. Yesterday, a woman died in the surf in north Devon.

Police across the country are searching for several people who have not been seen since last night.

Visitors to coastal areas have been warned to stay out of the sea, while those inland have been braced for localised flooding.

The A36 is closed in both directions for eight miles between Totton and Salisbury in Hampshire, also due to flooding.

The Environment Agency put out nearly 300 weather warnings today, covering every region of England and Wales. There are dozens of flood warnings in place, mostly in the South West of England, while forecasters have predicted strong winds, heavy rain and further flooding in the coming days.

Craig Woolhouse, the Environment Agency's head of flood incident management, said: "Strong winds and large waves along the west and south coasts of England are forecast between Friday and Sunday, coinciding with high tides.

"Impacts could include flooding affecting some coastal properties and communities.

"Coastal paths and promenades could be highly dangerous as there is an increased risk of being swept out to sea. People are warned to stay away from the shoreline.

"The Environment Agency is monitoring the situation closely, working alongside partners including the Met Office and local authorities. Environment Agency teams are out on the ground making sure that flood defences are in good working order, monitoring sea levels and preparing to issue flood alerts and warnings."

Updates are available on the Environment Agency website and through @EnvAgency and #floodaware on Twitter.

Matt Dobson, a senior forecaster with MeteoGroup, said there would be a brief respite tomorrow - but warned that further heavy rain and gale-force winds are on the way.

He said: "Tomorrow will be fairly pleasant in many places, with sunshine across the country and only a few showers across the west and south coast of England.

"But it won't last - from Thursday night into Friday there will be more heavy rain everywhere.

"Another deep area of very low pressure is coming in from the Atlantic, which will hit Northern Ireland and Scotland, and there will be severe gales in places.

"Over the last couple of weeks we have seen a few heavy rainfall events across the country and the ground will be saturated in places.

"More rain and strong winds are on the way, so river levels are going to stay very high."

Devon and Cornwall Police, together with the Coastguard, have appealed for people not to enter the sea during the bad weather.

It comes after a woman drowned in Croyde, north Devon, yesterday, while a search is under way for a 27-year-old man who was paddling in the sea at Loe Bar, near Porthleven in Cornwall, when he was suddenly swept off his feet by a large wave in the early hours of today.

A police spokesman said: "There are people who enjoy swimming in all weathers as well as those who may under-estimate the danger a rough sea can pose. During the current bad weather, we would appeal to everyone to use common sense and not put themselves in unnecessary danger.

"Although we have not had any recent instances, there have been occasions when large waves have washed people and animals into the water resulting in deaths."

Nearly 300 households in Liphook, Hampshire, lost power after lines were brought down in the stormy weather.

A spokeswoman for utility company SSE said 283 customers were affected after the cables were brought down in Haslemere at 7.01am today with the majority of customers back on by 8.25am and the remaining 34 restored by 5.05pm.

She added: "We would like to apologise and thank our customers for their patience."

UK Power Networks, which delivers power across the East, South East and London, said it was "a busy night" in the South East but without "many widespread power cuts at this stage".

A spokesman said: "We have robust emergency plans in place to cope with severe weather and the electricity network is built to be resilient but extreme weather can affect overhead power lines when tree branches and other debris damage them."

There was further disruption across the country, as fixtures of the New Year calendar were cancelled.

An annual fundraising New Year's Day swim was called off for the first time in more than 30 years because of the bad weather.

The event in Gosport, Hampshire, which was to be attended by about 300 people, many of them in fancy dress, was cancelled as high winds and heavy rains hit the south coast.

A spokesman for the Gosport and Fareham Inshore Rescue Service (Gafirs), which organised the event, said: "Unfortunately, due to the forecasted severe weather, we have made the decision to cancel the New Year's Day swim."

Meanwhile, the Coastguard is co-ordinating a search for a man who is believed to have fallen into the River Stour, near Iford Bridge in Christchurch, Dorset.

The search began at 7pm and since then the Southbourne Coastguard Rescue Team, the Portland Coastguard Rescue helicopter with its forward-looking infrared camera, Mudeford RNLI inshore lifeboat, the Wick ferry, Dorset Police and Dorset Fire and Rescue Service have been searching the river, its banks and surrounding area.

Portland Coastguard watch manager Jennet Chisholm said: "All the rescue units are working in very challenging conditions with rain and strong winds, but so far have been unable to find any sign of a missing man."


From Belfast Telegraph