Rain pounds Britain, trapping hundreds

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LONDON (AP) – Helicopter and boat crews rescued hundreds trapped Saturday after storms whipped through Britain, flooding towns and villages, including William Shakespeare’s picturesque birthplace where waters gushed into a theater.

Motorists slept overnight in cars on rain-lashed highways, while others were attempting to find vehicles abandoned on major roads Friday after the downpours caused long delays. The Association of British Insurers estimated damage from the floods could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Meteorologists said many areas of Britain had more than a month’s worth of rain in a few hours Friday and predicted more downpours over the weekend.

“We have acted quickly in what is an emergency,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a televised statement. “When you have a situation where a month’s rain is coming down and a month’s water is being created in an hour or two, then people have to act very quickly.”

He said officials would review whether changes were needed to flood defenses, but said the government had already increased spending on barriers.

“These are the sorts of rainfalls that we experienced in the past every 100 years, every 150 years, sometimes every 200 years – they’re very extreme,” Baroness Barbara Young, chief executive of Britain’s Environment Agency, told Sky News.

Weather forecaster MeteoGroup UK, said that Pershore, a town around 125 miles northwest of London, was worst hit, drenched by 5.7 inches of rain in 25 hours, between Thursday and Friday. Usual levels are 2 to 2.3 inches in a month, the center said.

Waters rushed into the basement of the Royal Shakespeare Theater, in Stratford-upon-Avon, around 100 miles northwest of London.

The theater company, which has two other venues in the town and is currently refurbishing the flooded venue, canceled a planned performance of “Macbeth” on Saturday, fearing audiences would be unable to reach the site.

“The area where the theaters are is under water,” spokesman Dean Asker said. “It’s a shame we’re not performing “The Tempest,” it would’ve been more appropriate.”

Royal Air Force helicopters rescued more the 100 people from rooftops of flooded villages, and around 2,000 people spent Friday night in emergency shelters in Gloucestershire, a county in southwest England. The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that it was one of the RAF’s biggest peacetime rescues.

“I’ve never seen torrential rain like this, the weather has been freakish across the whole of the country,” said Parmjit Dhanda, a lawmaker who represents the city of Gloucester in parliament.

Dozens of train journeys and flights were canceled Friday – but many services were operating as normal on Saturday, though there were still delays through the west of England.

Police were reporting delays on highways, and suggested that travelers pack food and warm clothing if they ventured onto the roads.

Darren Carr, among those stranded overnight in Gloucestershire, was forced to abandon a train journey with his family. “We are tired, fed up, and we don’t know when we are going home,” Carr said.

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