London (AFP) - Flooding in Britain spread along the River Thames and began to threaten London on Monday, as a political row over the handling of devastating winter storms erupted into the open.
The Environment Agency issued 14 severe flood warnings -- meaning lives are at risk -- in the affluent counties of Surrey and Berkshire to the west of the capital, after the Thames broke its banks.
Some areas are already under water, including parts of the Great Windsor Park, the grounds of Queen Elizabeth II's castle at Windsor, which itself is built on higher ground.
The Berkshire fire service rescued at least 16 people on Monday, including several from their homes in the flooded village of Wraysbury, a spokeswoman said.
In the village, residents donned waders and even a full wetsuit as the waters rose. Some complained that the village had been abandoned by the authorities, who are already under fire over their handling of flooding in southwest England.
"It's been bloody hopeless, there has been nobody to help at all," Sylvia Davies, the wife of the parish council chairman, told AFP.
"We need sandbags desperately but they have only just arrived."
Wettest January since 1766
Somerset in southwest England has been under water for weeks after the wettest January since 1766, and more bad weather is expected over the coming days.
Devastated communities have criticised the official response, saying more should have been done to protect their properties from flooding.
At the weekend, communities minister Eric Pickles admitted the government made a "mistake" in not dredging rivers but insisted the decision had been taken on the advice of the Environment Agency, a government body.
"I am really sorry that we took the advice... we thought we were dealing with experts," said Pickles, a member of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party.
Chris Smith, the head of the Environment Agency who has been fighting off widespread calls to resign, hit back on Monday, accusing ministers of holding back vital funds.
"When I hear someone criticising the expertise and professionalism of my staff in the Environment Agency who know more about flood risk management -- 100 times more about flood risk management -- than any politician ever does, I am not going to sit idly by," he said.
Smith, a former minister for the now opposition Labour government, said the Treasury had limited the amount the agency could spend on flood management in Somerset, which has been hardest hit by the rising waters.
The government last week announced Â£130 million (155 million euros, $215 million) in extra funding for emergency repairs and maintenance.
On a visit to Dorset in southwest England, Cameron called for calm as he viewed how the military are helping build up sea defences against weeks of punishing waves.
"I am only interested in one thing, and that is that everything the government can do is being done and will go on being done to help people through this difficult time," he said.
Forecasters at the Met Office said the run of winter storms, which have brought heavy rain and strong winds, has been "exceptional in its duration".
In a statement to parliament, Pickles said that Somerset had been inundated by 65 million cubic metres of floodwater -- and warned that other counties would suffer too.
"It is likely to take weeks to remove the sheer volume of floodwater once there is a significant break in the weather," the minister said.
"Across the Thames Valley and Surrey, the River Thames is rising, bursting its banks at certain locations (and) a sandbank programme is in place in key points of vulnerability.
"There is a high risk that the Thames, the Severn and the Wye will flood in the middle of the week.
"Local residents are actively engaged in planning and preparation."
London itself is protected by the Thames Barrier, although a suburb to the south of the capital, Croydon, announced plans to divert rising floodwaters caused by heavy rain away from homes and businesses by pumping them into a pedestrian underpass.
- Natural Phenomena
- Nature & Environment
- Environment Agency
- River Thames
- Eric Pickles
- flood warnings