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Floods Devastate UK Lake District; Many rescued

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COCKERMOUTH, England – Military helicopters winched dozens of people to safety and emergency workers in inflatable boats rescued scores more as floods swamped homes and roads Friday in northern England's picturesque Lake District. One police officer was missing after a bridge was swept away.

British soldiers conducted house-to-house searches and the air force deployed helicopters, dropping down and breaking through rooftops to pluck out people trapped by the flooding. Authorities had no firm figures yet on the number of rescued.

At least 960 homes were flooded by water up to 8 feet (2.5 meters) deep after a day of unprecedented rain, police in the northern region of Cumbria said.

Heavy rain and gales also brought widespread flooding to Ireland, as more than 3 feet (1 meter) of water shut down the center of the country's second-largest city, Cork, and more than a dozen towns and villages.

Among the hardest hit communities in England's Lake District was Cockermouth, a market town 330 miles (530 kilometers) northwest of London. The town, at the junction of the Cocker and Derwent rivers, is known for being the birthplace of poet William Wordsworth.

"It has devastated the town," said Michael Dunn, manager of the Bitter End pub in Cockermouth. "There is a lot of properties in Main Street, private shops, that have had their windows smashed in by the force of the water and by debris in the water.

"There were cars floating down the street. It will be a long time before Cockermouth recovers from this."

The rain stopped and floodwaters began to ease early Friday, giving rescuers a chance to reach trapped people by boat. Debris swirled around the boats as they pulled people to safety.

Tony Walker, whose house faces Cockermouth's main street, told BBC radio that he was on the top floor and the water on the ground floor was chest high.

"I've had better mornings," Walker said. "I've been here all night and I've run out of water now, so I'm thinking of making a break for it, really. The water is still pretty deep, it's going down, but at this rate it's going to be hours before it's clear."

Forecasters said the rainfall was unprecedented. The Environment Agency recorded 12.3 inches (314.4 millimeter) of rain in 24 hours in one spot — one of the wettest days ever recorded in England.

"It looks like a very historical event," said Julian Mayes, a forecaster with MeteoGroup UK.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn told the BBC that flood defenses were meant to withstand a one-in-100-years flood — but could not cope with the volume of water.

"What we dealt with last night was probably more like one-in-a-1,000, so even the very best defenses, if you have such quantities of rain in such a short space of time, can be over-topped," Benn said.

Police urged people not to travel, as many roads were impassible. Two bridges collapsed in the town of Workington, including a main road bridge over the River Derwent.

"This is a stone bridge, to wash away a bridge of that size and dimension is incredible," said lawmaker Tony Cunningham.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown that he had spoken to Cumbria Chief Constable Craig Mackey to offer help.

"Our thoughts are with all those who have been impacted by these floods," Brown said.

In Ireland, the army deployed about 100 soldiers and 10 trucks to help evacuate people trapped by waist-deep floodwaters in isolated rural homes.

The floods caused transport chaos along Ireland's western coast, with many major roads blocked and train services canceled.

The River Suck burst its banks in County Leitrim near the Northern Ireland border, flooding the town of Ballinasloe and cutting off major roads to Ireland's northwest. About 40 families had to be evacuated by boat from their homes.

The Irish weather forecasting service, Met Eireann, said parts of southern and western Ireland suffered their most intense and sustained rainfall in 30 years. Friday was mostly sunny but more rain and gales were forecast for the weekend.

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Associated Press Writers Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin and Jill Lawless, Danica Kirka, Bob Barr and Jennifer Quinn in London contributed to this report.

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