Britain remains in the grip of the worst run of winter storms for two decades, with 96 flood warnings in place throughout England and Wales and a further 244 areas put on flood alert.
Coastal areas – particularly in southern England – are most vulnerable because of unusually high tides and the arrival of a strong Atlantic storm.
The Met Office has issued yellow weather warnings of ice and rain, predicting river and surface flooding as well as travel disruption, mainly in south Wales and the south-west and south-east of England. Up to 40mm of rain could fall on higher ground.
Inland rainfall will put pressure on rivers, endangering nearby communities including those along the river Medway in Kent, the river Thames in Oxford and Osney, and the river Severn estuary in Gloucestershire.
The Thames barrier will remain closed to protect land near the river.
Matt Dobson, a forecaster for MeteoGroup, said the rain “simply has nowhere to go” because weeks of severe weather had left the ground waterlogged and rivers rising over their banks.
“It’s very unusual to have so many powerful storms come in one after the other in such a short space of time; we haven’t seen anything like this since about 1991,” he said.
“The nasty weather of the last few days is going to continue across the UK, with the combination of high tides and a powerful storm putting coastal areas particularly at risk.
“Any rain will mean more flooding as the ground is saturated and swollen rivers are coming up against strong waves.”
The strong winds, persistent rain and tidal waves are predicted to batter the UK for at least another two days, as emergency services attempt to cope with the trail of devastation already created by the severe weather.
More than 200 homes have been flooded from Cornwall to Scotland, with miles of coastline affected and roads and fields across the country left under water.
Two people have already died in the storms: a 27-year-old man from Surrey was found on Porthleven Sands beach in Cornwall after he was swept out to sea on New Year’s Eve night, and a woman died after being rescued from the sea in Croyde Bay, north Devon.
Dozens of volunteers in south Devon have resumed their search for missing 18-year-old student Harry Martin, who was last seen leaving his home to take photographs of the weather.
Officials around the country have pleaded with people to keep away from coastal areas, where waves up to 40ft high have lashed the land.
A man and child were almost swept away by a huge wave at Mullion Cove in Cornwall as they peered over the sea wall to watch the raging sea, and elsewhere in Cornwall vehicles driving on a coastal road were swamped and almost washed away by a tidal surge.
In Aberystwyth, a man was rescued by lifeboat after he defied police warnings and became trapped when photographing waves from a harbour jetty. Aberystwyth University has deferred the start of the examination period by one week and is advising students not to travel to the coastal town until the middle of next week.
Debris was strewn across the town’s promenade, while rail lines in north Wales were left buckled by the power of the sea and a road collapsed in Amroth, Pembrokeshire.
The strong tides were said to be the worst to batter the Welsh coast in 15 years.
Emergency services rescued four people from a flooded farm in Llanbedr near Barmouth, north-west Wales, the river Severn burst its banks in Gloucestershire for the second day running and a pregnant woman was rescued after 30 properties were flooded in Cardigan, mid-Wales. Part of the sea wall behind the Landmark theatre in Ilfracombe collapsed because of the storms.
The coastal surge in recent days has tested over 3,000km of flood defences in England.
Trains have also suffered disruption with services in west Wales and from Newport and Bristol to the south coast affected by the weather. There were also delays at the Port of Dover because of force five winds.
The environment secretary, Owen Paterson, warned that more bad weather was on the way and said he had chaired a meeting of all government departments to ensure all the necessary preparations were in place.
“Our flood defences have worked very well and have protected 205,000 homes at risk,” he said.
“I’d like to thank the Environment Agency, local councils, public utilities and emergency services who have worked tirelessly over the last week. I’d also like to thank soldiers from 36 Engineer Regiment and 2 Royal Gurkha Rifles who have helped to fill additional sandbags today in Kent.”
Paterson also urged those in risk areas to sign up to Environment Agency warnings and heed any advice that was issued.
However, the government’s flood-control strategy has been criticised after it emerged that an estimated 1,700 jobs are to be axed at the Environment Agency, with 550 staff from the floods team to go.
Paterson said frontline flood defences would be protected after the EA’s chief executive Paul Leinster said risk maintenance would be “impacted” and work on flood warnings would “have to be resized”.
Leslie Manasseh, the deputy general secretary of trade union Prospect, has called on the government to stop the cuts.
“Last week David Cameron praised Environment Agency staff for doing an amazing job with the floods and extreme weather. It’s typical that as soon as there is a crisis, the politicians immediately turn to the specialists and professionals with the scientific knowledge and skills to step in and protect the public,” he said.