Crews race to ease pressure on damaged UK dam as rain looms

In this image released by the Ministry of Defence, an RAF Chinook helicopter flies in sandbags to help repair the dam at Toddbrook reservoir near the village of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire, England, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. A British military helicopter dropped sandbags Friday to shore up a reservoir wall as emergency services worked frantically to prevent a rain-damaged dam from collapsing. Engineers said they remain "very concerned" about the integrity of the 19th-century Toddbrook Reservoir, which contains around 1.3 million metric tons (1.5 million (U.S tons) of water. (Gary Lane/Ministry of Defence via AP)
A bag of aggregate, a mixture of sand, gravel and stone, is thrown onto the damaged Toddbrook Reservoir near the village of Whaley Bridge,in Derbyshire, England, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Emergency workers are racing to lower water levels behind a damaged dam in northwest England as forecasters warn more bad weather is on the way. Pumps have reduced the water level in Toddbrook Reservoir by half a meter (20 inches) since Thursday, but authorities warn that pressure on the 180-year-old dam remains severe. (Yui Mok/PA via AP)
A view of the damaged Toddbrook Reservoir near the village of Whaley Bridge,in Derbyshire, England, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Emergency workers are racing to lower water levels behind a damaged dam in northwest England as forecasters warn more bad weather is on the way. Pumps have reduced the water level in Toddbrook Reservoir by half a meter (20 inches) since Thursday, but authorities warn that pressure on the 180-year-old dam remains severe. (Yui Mok/PA via AP)

LONDON — Emergency crews in northwest England raced to pump water from a reservoir with a damaged dam Sunday as weather forecasts calling for thunderstorms hastened fear of the structure failing and flooding of a town.

Firefighters said 22 high-capacity pumps were working around the clock to suck water out of the 180-year-old Toddbrook Reservoir to ease pressure on the dam, which was damaged when part of a spillway gave way in heavy rain last week.

To repair a gaping hole, a Royal Air Force helicopter dropped one-ton bags of sand and gravel into the chasm. Workers on the ground joined the bags with concrete grouting.

Six rescue boats were deployed around Whaley Bridge, a town 175 miles (280 kilometers) northwest of London, in case the dam bursts. Britain's meteorological agency said "torrential downpours and hail" could bring 40 millimeters (1.6 inches) of rain in one to two hours Sunday night.

By late Sunday afternoon, police said the pumps, which remove water at a rate of around 10 centimeters (3.94 inches) an hour, had lowered the reservoir by about three meters (9.8 feet).

"This work will continue until engineers are confident that the water is at a safe level and the risk has been mitigated," Derbyshire Deputy Fire Chief Gavin Tomlinson said. "Our priority remains the same: to pump as much water out of the reservoir as possible, to protect the Whaley Bridge community from the risk of the dam failing."

About 1,500 residents of Whaley Bridge were evacuated after the spillway broke Thursday. Another 55 homes were evacuated Saturday due to concerns about the weather and "the ongoing risk of the Toddbrook Reservoir breaching," Derbyshire police said.

On Sunday, police stopped allowing evacuated residents to stop by their homes for supplies, saying officers needed to focus on the pending storm and potential flooding. Some residents who had gone back refused to leave again.

"The attention of officers and other responders has to be on the preservation of life," Derbyshire police said in a statement. "While there was an urgent need over the past 24 hours to allow residents back into the area, our first duty is to protect the lives of the public and emergency services."

Derbyshire chief fire officer Terry McDermott told a meeting of residents that engineers were monitoring the dam wall 24 hours a day with lasers. A sluice channel around the reservoir was "coping well" with water being pumped out, he said.

"There has been no significant deflection in the dam wall according to the feedback we've had so far, which gives us some reassurance," McDermott said.

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