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As Houses Drown On Floodplains...Sandbags Turn Into Gold Dust (Int'l Edition)

International -- Spotlight on England

As Houses Drown on Floodplains...Sandbags Turn into Gold Dust (int'l edition)

Floods have turned the Butterworth family home in Robertsbridge, East Sussex, into a wading pool five times this year. Now, there's a moving van outside the 30-year-old house they've occupied for eight years, built on the floodplain of the River Rother. The family is unlikely to return after a six-month house refurbishment paid for by insurance, even though selling the property--it went on the market this summer, asking price $320,000--seems impossible. "Five times in a year is not an act of God. It's someone's negligence," says Hilary Butterworth. "I think we'll take legal action."

The Butterworths' house, one of an ever increasing number built on floodplains, was among 5,000 properties swamped during one of Britain's wettest autumns ever. Since mid-October, roads have become rivers, and lifeboats have been called in to rescue trapped residents. Insurance claims are nudging $1 billion, businesses are suffering from lost trade, and millions of tons of crops have been ruined. Even tourism is down. A report from the Center for Economics & Business Research says the bad weather will cost the economy at least $2.1 billion, reducing gross domestic product in the fourth quarter by 0.5%.

And as the mopping-up starts, fingers are being pointed. "A large number of recent housing developments have flooded," says Ed Gallagher, chief executive of the Environment Agency, a governmental consultative body. Since the agency has no statutory authority, its objections to developments on floodplains are overruled by local councils in about 200 cases a year. One such project, the year-old, 10-dwelling Abbey Mews, is in Robertsbridge, not far from the Butterworths' house. The houses now stand deserted while refurbishment takes place.

The councils O.K. such projects because they're under pressure to erect more housing, especially in the Southeast, and often, there's little alternative to building on floodplains. But Gallagher says sites must be even more carefully selected now because global warming means floods may happen every 20 years instead of every 50. He says London's promise of an extra $71 million for flood defenses won't even restore the existing ones. And although London plans to issue guidelines designed to limit building in floodplains, they still won't be legally binding, and building will be able to go ahead if precautions are taken.CRICKET BATS. Those precautions aren't always enough. In Robertsbridge, houses built two years ago with raised floors didn't escape the flooding. Residents of the 3,000-strong village had their request for flood defenses turned down two years ago because $378,000 was deemed too much.

As a result of the floods, the Gray-Nicholls cricket bat factory in Robertsbridge has been refused insurance if it remains in the floodplain, and many other businesses may face the same predicament. In High Street, flower-shop owner Sandy Durrant now keeps her blooms high on shelves and mounts a window display that can be moved in 15 minutes. Next to the shop is a notice: "Flooded 5 times in 10 months. My neighbors deserve government action now." Meanwhile, just across the road, the council has just granted planning permission for three new luxury houses.

One man's misery is another's fortune: As homeowners stack up sandbags against their doors, merchants are stacking up sales. One of Britain's largest construction suppliers, Jewsons, reports that sandbag sales have tripled since the start of the floods. In Yorkshire, where more than 250,000 sandbags were piled by the British Army along the banks of the Rivers Ouse and Derwent, Jewsons' suppliers ran dry. And James Komorowski, manager of Jewsons in Maidstone, Kent, says "people have been rolling up desperate for sandbags," adding that when the floods began, he sold 2,500 in 2 1/2 hours. The branch normally sells 200 a year.

However, despite predictions of more rain to come, demand could be cut short. On Nov. 1, a new product called the Floodgate was launched. Using an expandable metal frame with rubber seal that wraps round the bottom of a doorframe, the $310 device is supposed to offer protection equal to 50 sandbags. Says inventor Ian Harrison: "This product will make sandbags a thing of the past." His PR agency says orders are flooding in.By Jane Knight in Robertsbridge; Edited by Harry MaurerReturn to top

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