Rescuers faced a perilous battle against the forces of mother nature yesterday as a devastating storm hit the Westcountry, leaving three people dead.
Strong winds and heavy rain battered Devon and Cornwall for almost 24 hours, threatening dozens of homes with flooding and leaving roads covered in debris and surface water.
In Cornwall, a woman in her 60s was killed in the early hours when her home collapsed under the weight of a landslide thought to have been caused by a torrent of floodwater.
The body of mother-of-two Susan Norman, who had tragically only returned home on Thursday evening, was recovered by specialist search teams from the wreckage of a building in Looe yesterday afternoon.
The weather is also thought to have been a factor in a fatal rush-hour crash on the A39 in North Cornwall which claimed the life of a woman in her 40s and left another driver in hospital.
The woman, who has not been named but is from the Bude area, was thrown from her car in the impact. She was found trapped under a 4x4 in what is thought to have been a head-on crash near Kilkhampton at 7.15am.
A passenger died in a crash on the A38 in Devon during the severe weather.
The single vehicle accident happened at around 5.50pm yesterday near Endsleigh Garden Centre, Ivybridge, on the Plymouth-bound carriageway, police said.
There were two people in the car, the driver and one passenger, according to police.
Eyewitnesses said that the car had left the road and gone through a hedge and into a field.
It is not known if the weather conditions were a factor in the crash.
Police, fire and ambulance attended the scene and were still there late last night, police confirmed.
In the teeth of the storm and battling 20ft seas, Devonport-based HMS Echo helped in the rescue of an injured French fisherman in the Irish Sea.
More than two-and-a-half inches (67mm) fell on some areas of the region, prompting the Environment Agency to issue 14 flood warnings across the South West.
Forecasters say there is no end in sight to the chilly weather this side of Easter, predicting dry but cold days followed by freezing nights well into next week.
Meanwhile, highways bosses fear rain-soaked roads will turn icy and crack open, reversing efforts to repair a chronic pothole problem which is already costing millions to fix.
Woman's body found after house landslide collapse
The body of a woman was yesterday found in the precarious remains of a house in Cornwall which collapsed after being hit by a landslide.
Susan Norman, a mother-of-two, was the only person unaccounted for after the rear of the property in Looe was hit by mud and water in the early hours.
The force of the impact pushed out the front wall. Neighbours who went to try to help when the alarm was raised at 5am described how the whole building was moving while windows were "popping out".
It was initially deemed too dangerous for firefighters to enter the remains of the house, which had been converted into three flats.
After the building was stabilised, it was searched by specialist investigators who located a body. Devon and Cornwall Police confirmed the grim discovery but said no identification had taken place.
Dave King, from Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service, said: "Crews have now been able to go safely into the building. Early investigations suggest that she (Ms Norman) is in there."
He said: "The building has got significant damage to it. Specialist crews have come down to assist us in propping the building up, to make it as stable as possible so we can commit firefighters inside and actually find this missing person.
"It's a very fluid situation. We have to monitor the stability of the building throughout the operation. If we feel at any time that anybody is put at any risk, we will withdraw everybody and make a reassessment.
"It is stable at the moment and we are carrying out a rescue operation. A significant amount of earth has moved at the back of the property and has caused the damage to the property – it (the building) has moved forward."
More than a dozen residents in Sandplace Road, which has been closed for three months after another landslide nearby, were evacuated after most of the front of the building crumbled away, with debris and mud crashing on to the back of the property from the road behind it.
Retired police officer Pete Temlett, who phoned the emergency services after being woken by a panicked neighbour shortly before dawn, described how everyone was in a "state of shock".
The 59-year-old said: "I got a knock on the door at about 5am from the young man who lives in the top-floor flat.
"He was obviously in a state of shock and said his house had collapsed and he had to escape. I immediately got dressed and went down to the house with him, but I could see it could collapse at any moment. The windows were popping out and you could see the house was moving.
"My immediate thought was for the safety of the woman who lives in the bottom flat, but I couldn't go in there. I thought if I open a door it could collapse and cause her more injury."
The cause of the landslide is being investigated by Cornwall Council.
Nightmare scenario as weather causes chaos on region's roads
The wave of thundering downpours which swept across the Westcountry caused chaos on the region's roads and left one driver dead, others in hospital and many injured.
A woman was pronounced dead at the scene of an incident two miles outside Kilkhampton on the border of Devon and Cornwall.
Emergency services were summoned at 7.15am after a silver VW Polo and Ford Maverick collided.
A spokesman for Devon and Cornwall Police said the crash had left the car and van both in a ditch.
The driver of the Polo, a woman in her 40s from the Bude area, was declared dead at the scene.
Police said her next of kin were being informed.
"The man who was driving a Ford Maverick was air-lifted to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth where he is said to be stable and not thought to have life-threatening injuries," said the spokesman.
"He is understood to be in his early 40s and is from the Bideford area.
"Officers from the serious collisions investigation team have begun a detailed investigation and are carrying out work at the scene."
The road was closed while investigations were undertaken and was due to reopen last night.
Police have issued an appeal to motorists who were travelling in the area at the time and who may have seen the silver Polo travelling on the A39 heading north towards Bideford to get in touch.
Meanwhile a crash on the A386 in Meeth left one man in hospital and the road closed for a number of hours
Emergency services were called to the Petrockstowe junction at around 1.10pm yesterday following reports of a collision.
A white VW Transporter van and a silver Volvo lorry collided head on and the crash left the male driver of the Transporter with minor injuries for which he was taken to hospital by ambulance.
A collision on the A361 at Tiverton left debris on the road.
The road was partially blocked eastbound between the A396 Heathcoat Way junction in Tiverton and Sampford Peverell.
Police said other drivers had to swerve to avoid debris after a silver Vauxhall Vectra crashed leaving the driver with minor neck injuries.
Six firefighters from Mevagissey attended the scene of a single vehicle crash near the Lost Gardens of Heligan at midday yesterday. The driver was not thought to have been seriously injured.
Meanwhile, three people received minor injuries in Somerset when two cars collided at Monkton Elm in Somerset. A crew and rescue tender from Taunton both attended the scene and made the vehicles safe.
Forecasters say worst of wet weather is over
Torrential downpours will give way to some sunshine as forecasters offered a glimmer of hope for the rain-drenched Westcountry.
According to the Met Office, the worst of the terrible weather is behind the region and today will see a brighter picture, for Cornwall at least.
A spokesman for the Exeter-based organisation said that it would be a different tale for Devon and Somerset.
"It is an improving picture," she said.
"West of Plymouth we have no rain on the forecast and for Cornwall it should be a bright and sunny day.
"But for East of Plymouth, including Exeter, Salcombe and Torquay it will be dark, heavy and cloudy."
The rain in Devon and Somerset will be heavy at times, she said.
However, this will become more "fragmented and patchy" during the course of the day.
The temperatures will also be split, with Cornwall experiencing milder temperatures of between eight and 10 degrees.
Meanwhile in Devon it will be colder with temperatures between five and six degrees and in Somerset it will be positively chilly with the thermometer hovering around the three to four degrees mark.
The Met Office says that no weather warnings have been issued for the weekend and that "the worst of the weather is over."
Perfect storm likely to be followed by a deluge of potholes
Forecasters suggest the Westcountry could be about to experience the perfect conditions for the creation of potholes: a deluge followed by a penetrating frost.
Council chiefs fear that this damaging combination of weather patterns could provide a major setback to efforts to repair the region's crumbling roads.
A major survey in January revealed the huge network contains an average of 5.2 potholes for every mile, a massive 65,000 ruptures and breaches throughout the 12,500 miles in Devon and Cornwall.
Local authorities need as much as £10.5 billion to bring Britain's "crumbling roads" back to a good condition, according to a report published just a week ago.
Councils in England and Wales filled in more than two million potholes last year – a 29% increase on 2011, the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) calculated.
At the height of the "crisis" in 2010, following a similar downpour followed by a prolonged cold snap, Devon County Council, the authority which oversees the longest road network in the country with some 8,000 miles, repaired a staggering 200,000 potholes.
But despite those efforts, torrential rainfall brought large scale disruption at the end of November last year, dumping more than a month's worth of rain in just eight days.
This has left councillors in Devon, where six bridges were lost, scratching their heads as to how they are going to find much of the £13 million needed to shore up the roads.
The council's cabinet member for Highways Stuart Hughes yesterday said there was concern that the huge effort and expenditure could be about to face another setback. "We had made real progress tackling the numbers of potholes which had reached unprecedented levels after three harsh winters in a row," he added.
"If there is still a lot of water run-off on the roads and the weather turns cold again as forecast, we could see problems with ice which will intensify the damage and weaken the roads further."
In Cornwall, where frosts tend to be rarer and the road network smaller than its neighbours at around 4,500 miles, the council has filled in 7,802 potholes potholes in the ten months since the drought broke last April, but fresh damage caused in November and December could drain an extra £7 million.
With each pothole repair costing somewhere between £80 and £130, the authority said managing the problem amid harsh central Government grant cuts of as much as 28% was "challenging".
A spokesman for Cornwall Council said: "Our priority is to identify and repair potholes and damage to the county's principal routes.
"However, these are challenging times for local authorities, with a substantial cut in government funding already placing pressure on our budget.
"This has not been helped by the prolonged poor weather conditions throughout 2012 which accelerated the rate of damage to roads and created many more potholes."
Devon County Council was handed a share of a £100 million fund set up by the Labour Government in 2011, after the winter freeze of 2010. It received £12.9 million in Winter Damage Grants from the Department for Transport in 2010 and 2011, funding about 800 road report schemes across Devon, covering 80 miles of roads in more than 50 communities.
In 2011 the council repaired 130,000 potholes, down a third on the previous year.
The authority predicts it may have to find up to £10 million to keep up with the worsening surface damage, a figure which Conservative leader John Hart, admitted members "don't know" where to find. On the rails, Network Rail reported problems yesterday, with a branch line closed near Newton Abbot and a flood warning outside Exeter.
Farmers dismayed by horrific conditions
Flooded fields and sodden ground, and no sign of spring, have added heartache to existing frustration for Westcountry farmers.
Unable to get machinery on to their land, and facing mounting debts from last year's climatic catastrophe, they are now confronted with a very late spring and a farming calendar weeks behind schedule.
With lambing in full swing the early mornings have been a miserable prospect for sheep farmers and shepherds striving to save new-born lambs and keep ewes dry and comfortable.
"It's absolutely horrific, particularly for anyone just starting their lambing, who are now completely in trouble," said Colin Rowland, chairman of the Devon branch of the National Farmers' Union (NFU). "You simply can't put out young lambs in this weather."
Mr Rowland, who has 1,000 North Country Mule ewes lambing at Bampton, near Tiverton, said he had been up for three nights ensuring all his sheep were lambing safely. "If you haven't enough room in your lambing sheds you're in trouble," he added. "For most farmers, once they get into the second week of lambing they have enough space.
"Hopefully the weather is improving and the lambs will be able to go out. Farmers make the best of what they've got – but inevitably in this weather, anyone lambing out of doors will find themselves picking up a lot of dead lambs."
He has 150 pairs currently indoors and counted himself lucky only to have lost three lambs overnight, which he attributed to foxes.
And there has been no sign of the Schmallenberg Virus, which causes ewes to abort or give birth to deformed lambs, he said.
The region's arable farmers, too, have been hit hard by the conditions, said Mike Hambly, chairman of the regional arable sector board.
"This is taking us back to square one," said Mr Hambly, who farms near Callington. "We've had such trials and tribulations with the weather, from last harvest right the way through the autumn. We were fortunate to have a break in February so we could get onto the land – but what we so badly need now is some warm sunshine to help those early crops. And there are still opportunities to plant spring barley."
Long days and nights of continual rain had come just at a time when warm, dry conditions were most needed, said Andrew Butler, Devon county adviser of the NFU. "We were hoping for a good start to spring, after last year, but it just hasn't arrived," he said.
"Sheep farmers are all involved in lambing right now, and though a lot of arable farmers caught up with their schedules during the cold, dry spell, this continuous rain is clearly disruptive, when the ground should be drying.
"Farmers want to be cracking on with a vast range of jobs, but very wet conditions are making it impossible."
Met Office inundated as weather just gets worse
Incorrect weather forecasts are met with brickbats while accurate predictions are greeted with silence, perhaps rightly, many would say, given the money spent on expensive state-of-the-art equipment and the advances in science.
Nevertheless, the Met Office's reluctance to forecast far into the future is understandable, following the backlash it received for its famously bad claim that the UK was "odds on for a barbecue summer" back in 2009.
That year was a complete washout and left the Exeter-based organisation sheepish when tourism bosses responded with anger.
But amid the daily battle through the latest weather front, few spare a thought for the 1,800 staff when – as has been the case all too often during the past 12 months – the weather turns extreme.
Rain, wind and above all snow, generates a deluge of calls from the public, businesses and of course reporters demanding statistics, a forecast and a few colourful lines to illustrate the point. A resilience plan is in place to deal with unforeseen circumstances such as the second wettest year on record in 2012.
This means staff from other departments, such as internal audit, are trained and ready to man the phones, email accounts and Twitter feeds.
Helen Chivers, a press officer who briefs the media, said it is a 24/7 operation.
"When the weather gets bad we get a huge increase in enquiries – we have had to bring extra people in more often in the past year than before," she added.
"When the weather is extreme – particularly when it snows – we can have up to eight people on the desk dealing with enquiries.
"People want to know what the weather is going to do where they are, where they are going and how the roads are."
Forecasters at the Met Office yesterday revealed that temperatures had dropped two degrees below average so far this month, with no end to the cold snap in sight before the Easter holiday next weekend. This compares to the average mean temperature for March, which in Devon stands at 4.4C and in Cornwall, 5.3C, not far away from the coldest on record in 1962, when the mercury reached 3.1C and 3.9 in the two counties.
Temperatures are set to drop as low as -4C in rural areas and snow is expected on Sunday and Monday.
Mrs Chivers said an area of high pressure had become stuck over the UK and was bringing cold air from northern Europe and Russia.
She said it was "a bit early to predict Easter" but added there was "no chance of a heatwave any time soon".
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