There are two battles raging on an island waterlogged as rarely in its history. England and Wales are huddled against the wettest winter for more than two centuries, according to data from the Met Office; today the U.K.’s official weather service also issued a rare red alert warning of a risk to life and property as violent winds bear down on the country. Residents, watching their communities overwhelmed by flood waters, deprived of electricity or isolated after giant waves and howling storms breached roads and transport lines, face a struggle to survive. There have been casualties including 7-year-old Zane Gbangbola, thought to have asphyxiated on fumes given off by pumps used to try to clear water out of his home in Surrey, southwest of London. Many more face smaller griefs: the loss of personal possessions; the certainty of months, even years, of hardship and disruption.
The second battle is, for most Britons, less serious but it’s no less visceral for that. Prince Charles triggered it, by acting, as he told TIME, he is impelled to do. “I feel more than anything else it’s my duty to worry about everybody and their lives in this country, to try to find a way of improving things if I possibly can,” he explained back in September, and so on Feb. 4 he pulled on his Wellington boots and waded, more or less literally, into the issue of the flooding in a part of southwestern England called the Somerset Levels. “There’s nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people doing something. The tragedy is that nothing happened for so long,” he said, surveying the devastation.
It is safe to assume that he meant the failures by serial governments to invest in flood defenses or by the Environment Agency, the body tasked with combating floods and managing rivers, to act more decisively to mitigate further disaster and discomfort. Or he may have been referring to climate change, a threat that he has highlighted for decades.
What the Prince almost certainly did not mean is that it was a tragedy that public figures had not, until that moment, taken it upon themselves to view the damage for themselves. Yet that has been one side effect of his visit. This BuzzFeed post captures the result: 21 Pictures Of Politicians In Wellies Staring At Floods.
It won’t be easy for any one political party to gain traction amid the rising waters. The current Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition has cut the funding to the Environment Agency; predecessor Labour governments also underestimated the investment needed to dredge rivers and implement other precautionary measures. But that won’t put a dampener on the Westminster blame game, especially with a parliamentary by-election tomorrow and European elections in the spring.
And politicians need only look across the Atlantic to understand the dangers of seeming to do too little in the teeth of natural disasters. As ice storms gather again in parts of the U.S., Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been quick to assure TIME that his city is ready, this time. Prime Minister David Cameron, who yesterday promised “money would be no object” in helping those affected by the U.K. floods, earned sharp criticism in 2007 when still in opposition by departing on a planned aid trip to Rwanda instead of visiting his own constituents in Witney, West Oxfordshire, amid heavy flooding there. In past days some political insiders have questioned whether the current floods, Biblical in scale, might prove his Hurricane Katrina. Others see this as an opportunity for Cameron to demonstrate his calm head in a crisis. For the people on the sharp end of nature, none of this looks like an opportunity.