LONDON – The Met Office called the thing Dennis, and the second-strongest “bomb cyclone” on record in the North Atlantic wreaked havoc across Britain – with towering waves, hurricane winds and worst of all, lots and lots of rain.
And with rivers surging above their banks, and with flood warnings still pinging on the telly like traffic alerts during a London rush hour, the storm is now raining on Prime Minister Boris Johnson, too, who is facing a torrent of criticism for his government’s response.
“Where the floody hell is Boris?” the Sun newspaper asked in a front-page headline.
“The prime minister is in danger of misjudging the public mood,” the tabloid warned.
The hashtag #wheresBoris was trending in Britain on Twitter.
The flooding begat by Storm Dennis is responsible for at least three deaths so far, as the waters continue to rise.
The amount of rain that has fallen – and is still coming down on Tuesday – was not record-breaking, but the deluge came just a week after a previous cyclone, called Storm Ciara, hit Britain – and so the ground was soaked and rivers already running to the brim.
Storm Dennis was a big boy, too, and so the damage has extended from Northern Ireland to the Scottish Highlands to the Cornish seacoast. Parts of Wales were seeing the worst flooding in a generation on Tuesday.
The airwaves have been streaming images of nursing homes subsumed by muddy brown water; locals filling sandbags; the displaced sheltering in civic centers; cars floating down submerged streets; and the elderly rescued in canoes. The storm triggered landslides, interrupted air, rail and ground traffic, and brought electric lines down.
The storm, which produced waves up to 80 feet tall in the seas west of Britain, brought an abandoned “ghost ship” ashore near Cork in Ireland.
The cargo vessel Alta had floated for thousands of miles – its engines silenced and steering useless – since its 10-man crew was rescued off the ship by the U.S. Coast Guard in October 2018 from the waters southeast of Bermuda. Now it’s washed up on the rocks at Ballycotton.
Boris Johnson faced criticism by opposition party politicians, the press and ordinary citizens for not visiting the scenes of inundation. The Labour Party said Johnson’s decision not to visit the hard hit areas or hold a cabinet-level emergency meeting was “a disgrace.”
In Britain, there’s a tradition of prime ministers – even posh ones – tugging on a pair of boots to trudge in the mud and offer solace and promises of disaster relief.
It didn’t help that when Storm Dennis hit, the new prime minister was spending the weekend at the 115-room lakeside mansion in Kent known as Chevening, instead of visiting victims of the floods, the newspapers reported. The Yorkshire Post called the prime minister “missing in action.”
He was also heckled by some when he visited towns deluged by flooding in the north of England last year.
Britain maintains an extensive, elaborate and expensive systems of barriers, gates, dams and reservoirs to combat winter flooding.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the government had invested heavily over the years in storm protection. “The government has a firm grip on this,” Eustice told Sky News. “It’s a very difficult situation, with widespread flood alerts, but our flood defenses are working as intended.”
In the past year new flood-control infrastructure was constructed to protect more than 200,000 vulnerable properties, he said, with an additional 100,000 properties soon to be protected.
Eustice said the government planned to spending another $5 billion on flood control over the next five years.
“We’ll never be able to protect every single household, just because of the nature of climate change and the fact that these weather events are becoming more extreme, but we’ve done everything that we can do with a significant sum of money,” he said.