Britain sends in more troops as historic city floods

York (United Kingdom) (AFP) - British Prime Minister David Cameron was expected to visit flood-stricken parts of northern England on Monday, as troops helped tackle a deluge that has swamped the historic city of York.

The government has dispatched hundreds of soldiers to help deal with unprecedented flooding in the county of Yorkshire, where hundreds of people have been forced to flee their homes.

Cameron on Sunday hosted a conference call of Britain's COBRA emergencies committee over the floods, which have caused chaos during the post-Christmas holiday period.

Rivers across northern England have burst their banks, hitting the cities of Leeds and Manchester as well as nearby towns and villages.

Emergency workers paddled in dinghies to save stranded residents in York, with some people wading through waist-deep water carrying possessions above their heads.

Mountain rescue teams used inflatable boats to evacuate care home residents, while soldiers knocked on doors to check whether people who stayed in their houses were still safe.

An extra 200 soldiers were sent in to work with the 300 already on the ground, aiding hundreds of rescuers and volunteers who have been on high alert since Christmas Day.

"A further 1,000 military personnel are being held in reserve should the situation worsen," Cameron's Downing Street office said, calling the flooding an "unprecedented event".

The Environment Agency had 27 severe flood warnings in place early Monday, signalling a "danger to life", chiefly at points along major rivers in Yorkshire.

Warnings were also issued for 94 other areas where flooding was expected and "imminent action required".

The Met Office national weather service predicted a "fine and dry day with some sunshine" for Yorkshire on Monday. However, river levels on the Ouse in York were expected to peak around midday.

- 'Empty rhetoric' -

The government was under pressure Monday to review the quality of Britain's flood defences.

The Guardian newspaper said Monday that "empty rhetoric and even the army cannot substitute for coherent policy on flood prevention".

"Climate change and inadequate preparation... ensure that the floods will become a painfully regular future of British life," the daily said in its editorial.

Cameron said a combination of temporary and permanent barriers had helped, but admitted that "in some cases they have been overtopped and overrun, and so of course we should look again at whether there is more we can do".

Accountancy firm PwC said it was too early to estimate losses arising from this month's floods but initial analysis showed that they could run as high as £1.3 billion ($1.9 billion, 1.8 billion euros).

With its cobbled streets and timbered buildings, York is one of Britain's top tourist attractions.

It has a rich history dating back to Roman times and is home to one of Europe's finest cathedrals, which is about 800 years old.

Some 3,500 properties in York were deemed at risk of flooding and special centres were set up to shelter hundreds residents who have left their homes.

Others took to the higher floors of their houses to avoid the water pouring into front rooms still adorned with Christmas decorations.

The barrier holding back the River Foss flowing into the city was raised, to prevent it from becoming jammed shut in a power loss.

Floodwater in some streets almost totally submerged parked cars and came up so high that only shop signs could be seen above the surface in some areas.

The Archbishop of York John Sentamu said flood waters were coming into his Bishopthorpe Palace residence.

York city council also tweeted that all its phone lines were down "due to flood water in the exchange". More than 7,500 homes in Greater Manchester and Lancashire were without electricity due to flood damage.