Dozens of community members have been evacuated from their homes in areas worst hit by the floods, as rising water levels provoked fears among synagogues near the Thames and forced David Cameron to cancel his visit to Israel, writes Justin Cohen.
More than 1,000 homes have been evacuated along the Thames while 16 severe weather warnings remained in place for Berkshire, Surrey and Somerset at the time of going to press.
The prime minister warned on Tuesday the situation could get worse before it gets better, as he cancelled next week’s two-day visit to Israel in order to head the Government’s response to the floods, telling the country that nothing was more important than dealing with the crisis.
As Maidenhead Synagogue opened its doors to members needing temporary accommodation after being evacuated from their homes, Rabbi Jonathan Romain described a scene not far from the shul where in parts “you can’t see where the river was. On previous occasions the flood relief scheme has prevented flooding in this area but now it’s been overwhelmed by vast torrents of water.”
“You can’t describe what it’s like to see acres and acres under water”.
The head of the Environment Agency last night warned that water in areas including Maidenhead could rise even higher than current levels over the weekend. Romain said: “We don’t know if the synagogue itself will be in danger but we are prepared and expect we’ll have a few hours to take action if the river bursts its banks. We will immediately take items upstairs, including the Sefer Torah.”
Romain spent yesterday assisting some of the members who have been forced out of their homes and messages were speedily sent to congregants offering help with moving furniture or bringing food supplies.
Some members of Staines and District Synagogue have also had to leave their homes.
Chairman Hilary Stone said: “We’re considering whether to hold services this weekend as a number of congregants who live by the river are struggling. “We are most concerned about water coming up from the underground streams in the Staines areas, which could cause the drains to overflow and bring sewage up to the surface. Chertsey Lane, which is close to the shul, is particularly vulnerable to the waters.”
She added: “I have been phoning members of the community in vulnerable situations to see how they’re coping. One gentleman didn’t want to leave his house but the EA is advising those in the worst hit roads to pack a bag and evacuate. With further rain expected we are worried about the coming days, especially the congregants congregants in the coming days.”
The ongoing crisis was also being monitored closely at Cheltenham Hebrew Congregation, but the community’s two-star listed building remained unaffected last night.
The shul’s Jenny Silverstone said the situation was so far not as bad as in 2007, when Synagogue Lane flooded and defences close the shul subsequently deepened.
In Exeter, shul members helped clear out a community hall that was flooded and the debris in the street in the village of Topsham in Devon.