The Westcountry remained on high alert last night as torrential rain and 70mph winds battered the region for a second day.
Severe gale force winds ripped metal sheeting off roofs, downed trees and power lines, and blew over a 40ft temporary building, while heavy rain brought down a bridge, flooded roads and threatened properties. Forecasters predicted some respite today with drier and brighter weather but issued "yellow" warnings for further heavy rain on Saturday and Sunday.
Met Office deputy chief forecaster Paul Gundersen said: "The current unsettled spell of weather is set to continue with further spells of heavy rain expected across the country over the next few days.
"There has been some torrential rain and squally winds as a cold front moved across the UK, but another deep depression developing off Iberia will head towards us for the weekend. This is expected to bring more heavy rain and strong to gale force winds to many parts of the country.
"We urge everyone to keep up to date with forecasts and warnings and be prepared for what the weather will bring."
With up to an inch of rain predicted to fall in some areas in just an hour, the Environment Agency in the South West yesterday issued 36 flood warnings – including on the River Clyst – across the region.
The agency also put in place 57 flood alerts including on the rivers Looe, Seaton, Fowey, Fal and lower Tamar in Cornwall. Concerns were also raised for the Taw, Torridge and lower Exe in Devon.
"We strongly urge people to sign up to flood warnings on the Environment Agency website, keep a close eye on local weather forecasts and be prepared for flooding. We also ask that people stay safe, by staying away swollen rivers and not attempting to drive through floodwater," said Nick Moore, from the Environment Agency.
"Environment Agency teams have been mobilised across the country to check on flood defences, clear river blockages and monitor river levels."
Tavistock in Devon saw some minor flooding on Dolvin Road where children at St Rumon's Infant School were put on flood alert.
After a morning of severe gales – during which 70mph gusts were recorded on the Isles of Scilly and at Berry Head on the South Devon coast – torrential rain then swept across the region in the afternoon.
Emergency services and highways crew responded to hundreds of calls, mainly to flooded roads, fallen trees but also to help secure damaged buildings. The most serious accident happened on the A3079 at Beaworthy, near Okehampton, shortly after 4pm in which one man died. The storm caused misery for travellers, with rail services being suspended between Exeter and Taunton because of flood damage to the track.
It was no better on the roads, with motorists facing hazardous journeys with vast areas of standing water, downed trees and buffeting winds.
Near Cullompton, a 30ft bridge over the River Culme collapsed late on Wednesday night under the force of water, closing the road between Westcott and Bradninch.
John Bowen, landlord of the nearby Merry Harriers pub, said: "It must have been a phenomenal weather event to take out a bridge like that.
"Talking to the locals, they've said the last time they saw something similar was back in 1961."
Devon County Council said it has closed the road and put up security fencing at either end of the grade II listed bridge. Engineers are due to inspect what remains of the structure when flood waters subside.
Plymouth city centre was also in chaos at rush hour as flood waters inundated the newly revamped Gdynia Way and high winds forced the closure of one lane of the Tamar Bridge.
The bridge was also closed to high-sided vehicles, caravans and motorcycles until around 6pm. Just one ferry was running from Torpoint to Devonport with queues of more than an hour.
The chain on one of the ferries also snapped, leaving the ferry stranded at Devonport.
Ferry manager David List said: "It is very unusual. I have been here 15 years and it is the first time we have ever had a severed chain like that. We believe it could be an existing defect in the chain which was identified by the extra forces involved today."
Traffic on the A386 near Beam Quarry, at Torrington, was disrupted after part of a wall collapsed onto the road.
In Exeter, a 30ft section of a 20ft-high wall collapsed onto a bus shelter in Hele Road in St David's Hill at about 8pm. Emergency services closed the road while firefighters carried out thermal imaging checks to ensure no-one was trapped under the rubble.
The road between Bovey Tracey and Manaton was blocked after a 40ft temporary building was blown off its base. In Hayle, a large trampoline was whipped up by the winds and left hanging on a telegraph pole.
In Plymouth, a shopper needed medical treatment after a sign fell from Drake Circus shopping centre and struck them on the ankle.
Almost 500 homes the Bickleigh area of East Devon were temporarily left without power as were some 120 properties in the Torpoint area of South East Cornwall. People across the region are being urged to check weather updates today before they travel.
‘There was a rumbling roar like Victoria Falls’
A Devon community hit by flooding has pulled together to protect itself from damage, writes Adam Walmesley.
Some 20 families were evacuate in Halberton near Tiverton on Wednesday night over fears that water from the second side of a collapsed canal would destroy their homes.
The Grand Western Canal breached its banks once two 100ft sections had collapsed under the weight of water from two days of torrential rain in the Mid Devon area.
A two-mile section of the canal drained through the hole left in the bank between Halberton and Sampford Peverell forming a lagoon in surrounding fields.
Engineers worked in pitch black conditions to stabilise the 200-year-old canal after a months' worth of rain reportedly fell in 48 hours. They removed tonnes of earth at the site leaving a hole the estimated height of a three-storey building.
Temporary dams were constructed to restrict the flow of escaping water, which at one stage was feared might cascade down into the village.
Police made an initial assessment over whether there was an immediate threat to human life.
Officers then worked alongside engineers to cordon off the area to the public.
Devon County Councillor Des Hannon, who represents Halberton, witnessed the canal bank collapse.
He said: "There was a deep rumbling roar reminiscent of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Then tonne-size chunks broke away and the water poured out.
"It looked like a casualty from the Bible."
He added: "Initially it was hard to persuade the services, who were extremely busy, that it was a genuine emergency.
"But anyone who saw the devastation for themselves realised what we were up against.
" It was extremely fortunate no one was killed."
Councillor Roger Croad, the County Council's cabinet member responsible for the canal said: "Quick thinking and actions by our Rangers yesterday morning to start damming the canal either side of the immediate problem area did lessen the impact.
"But clearly with the amount of water flowing into the canal and the erosion of the embankment at that point, the breach could not have been avoided."
Malcolm Trump, canal liaison officer, described the incident as an "Act of God".
"No one anticipated we would be working through the night to secure the canal and prevent a catastrophic disaster," he said.
Volunteers from the Mid Devon community stayed up through the night to help those in need.
Elderly residents took refuge in the village hall which became a co-ordination centre for police and other services.
Barrie Corden, chairman of the village hall, said it was the "most serious emergency incident" he had witnessed in the community.
John Gates, a village resident, said he was "gobsmacked" by what had happened to the canal.
Fellow resident Stephen Harvey, who walks by the canal every day, said: "It's a terrible incident to happen on such a beautiful canal."
Festive lights switch-on cancelled
Safety fears meant another Christmas lights switch-on was cancelled in Devon yesterday.
The event in Exeter had been scheduled for yesterday evening but was postponed due to the exceptional weather circumstances and the safety of spectators and participants.
John Harvey, Exeter city centre manager said: "We've had to take the decision to cancel as the weather forecast is just too wet and windy to continue safely.
"It's disappointing for all those that have worked so hard to put the event and programme of entertainment together but we hope everyone will join us to celebrate the countdown to Christmas."
The switch-on in Princesshay Square has been rescheduled for 6.15pm today with live entertainment from 4.30pm.
The cancellation in Exeter followed similar disappointment in Plymouth which was also due to hold its festivities last night.
The weather also put paid to visits to Castle Drogo and Lydford Gorge which were closed by the National Trust.
Cardinham Woods, near Bodmin, which are owned by the Forestry Commission, were also closed because of the risk of falling trees.
Rail disruption as flooding damages track
Rail travellers heading in and out of the region faced major problems yesterday as services between Exeter and Taunton – part of the mainline between Penzance and Paddington – were suspended because of flooding.
A spokesman for Network Rail said: “We have had a serious wash-out of ballast at Cowley Bridge which has damaged the track and both up and down lines remain blocked.
“The ballast has been washed out on a 220-yard section of track and we have no information at the moment as to when the line will reopen again.”
Services from Exeter to London’s Waterloo, a diversionary route in case of problems elsewhere on the network, were affected by flood damage between Pinhoe and Honiton with services having to terminate at Yeovil.
Meanwhile, problems were also reported on the Barnstaple branch line in North Devon. The spokesman added: “We have been using that route to take equipment up to the Tarka line where improvement works have started.
“It is possible we will have to halt work on that and move some of the engineers to help repair track elsewhere.”
A spokesman for First Great Western, which operates services between Penzance and Paddington, said it was having to bus passengers between Exeter and Taunton.
“We have been advised that is unsafe to operate some services and we are having to run trains at reduced speeds in other locations,” he said.
“We are running a replacement bus service between Exeter and Taunton, although the road conditions are not that great.
“We would advise everyone to check before they travel either on our website or with national rail inquiries.”
Access to Plymouth railway station was restricted after a section of metal roof was torn loose by the strong winds.
Close calls as trees tumble
Drivers and homeowners survived several close calls yesterday as strong winds caused a number of trees across Plymouth to fall.
Plymouth City Council's street scene services team were called out to remove a tree that had fallen over a parked car in Royal Navy Avenue, in Keyham.
A large branch of a tree had fallen across the bonnet of the car and spilled out onto the road causing it to be closed at the junction with Victory Street.
Luckily the parked car was empty at the time the branch fell and no one was hurt.
In Plympton, Colebrook village was two feet deep in flood water last night and access to Boringdon Hill was cut off due to a fallen tree.
And at Marsh Mills, in Crabtree Close, a couple were left shaken after a large tree collapsed onto the roof of their house.
Steve and Margaret Chapman were sitting in their lounge at around 3pm when they heard a loud bang.
Margaret said: "I was eating my mince pies and cream and Steve was reading the paper when we heard a massive bang. I thought something was coming through the ceiling, I really did.
"It was so frightening, it took about half an hour for my heart rate to return to normal."
A large tree had fallen onto the corner of their flat putting a hole through the roof and causing guttering and the TV aerial to fall off.
Steve said: "It was so frightening. It was just like a clap of thunder. It shook the house and even the spotlights fell out the sockets in the ceiling."