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Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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London keenly aware of vulnerability to floods

The Associated Press

LONDON — Waves of crushing water may seem out of place on the River Thames, which snakes lazily through London. But the British capital has long lived with the threat of catastrophic flooding.

London, which sits about 3 feet above sea level, was once extremely vulnerable to surging North Sea tides that would cause the river to suddenly rise.

Today the city of 8 million is protected by a combination of barriers, embankments and levees, but authorities warn that no system is impenetrable.

"It's not exactly New Orleans," said Sarah Lavery of Britain's Environment Agency. "But we are very conscious, and there is always a risk of a bigger flood coming."

In 1953, more than 300 people were killed and 30,000 people evacuated because of flooding along the Thames and elsewhere in southeastern England. London was mostly spared, but the damage, in today's costs, would have been more than $9 billion.

The last time London was flooded was in 1928, when 14 people died. Were the capital flooded again, the loss of life probably would be much higher while the damage would be about $60 billion, according to insurance estimates.

The most-familiar part of London's protective network is the Thames Flood Barrier, completed in 1984 at a cost of nearly $1 billion. Spanning more than 1,700 feet — about a third of a mile — the barrier consists of 10 movable gates supported by concrete piers.

"Quite simply put, we cannot allow the barrier to fail," Lavery said.

There is also concern about global warming, which could raise water levels and — in a worst-case scenario — lead to a breach in the barrier that would send a wall of water spilling into London and covering the streets in 6 feet of water.

Such a risk is not far-fetched, said Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurer, which has ranked London No. 9 on its list of megarisk cities.

"The city itself has a good degree of protection," said Andreas Siebert, Munich Re's head of geoinformatics. But he added: "London is at risk by winter storms and thunderstorms and a storm surge."

That's why the city, which is to host the 2012 Olympic Games, is looking at ways to keep the estuary protected, said Kelly Flynn, a spokeswoman for the London Authority.

The authority recently warned Londoners that paving gardens and parks increases the risk of flooding by allowing more rain to run into the river. "London is vulnerable to flooding, be it from the Thames tide, from rivers as a result of heavy rainfall or from our drainage system," said Roger Evans, former chairman of a committee on the issue.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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