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Queen dedicates Thames Barrier to save London from floods

By CATHY BOOTH

LONDON -- Queen Elizabeth II succeeded Tuesday where 11th century King Canute failed -- she held back the tides with the help of a massive $675 million flood barrier spanning the River Thames.

In a ceremony at Woolwich, 8 miles east of London, the queen dedicated the Thames Barrier, the world's largest structure of its kind, built over eight years by 4,000 workmen to save the capital from catastrophic surge tides up the river.

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Thousands of Britons and tourists shivered in chill winds along the river as the queen pushed a button to raise the barrier's 10 huge steel gates -- each weighing 3,000 tons -- from the riverbed to their full five stories.

In less than 20 minutes, the river was dammed.

'Construction of the Thames flood barrier has indeed been a race against the tide,' the queen said. 'As recently as 1953, this city narrowly escaped catastrophe in a year when much of the sea defenses of East Anglia collapsed and more than 300 people were lost in Britain.'

The Greater London Council commissioned the barrier in the early 1970s because it feared a chance North Sea surge tide could push upriver and inundate 45 square miles of London, killing 100,000 people, flooding the subways for nine months, knocking out telecommunications and causing losses of $4.5 billion.

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The flood threat has increased over the years as the city sinks into its clay foundations because of a massive geological tilt pushing southern England down about a foot each century. In 1978, tides came within 2 feet of breaching London's embankments.

The barrier, which cost more than four times its original price because of labor disputes, is already hailed as one of the 'engineering wonders of the world.'

The structure stretches one-third of a mile across the Thames - twice the length of the Houses of Parliament.

Its 10 floodgates pivot up from the riverbed between nine 'piers' that look like huge stepping stones and dwarf London's bridges.

For Tuesday's ceremony, massive security steps were taken, with all commercial shipping and helicopter flyovers banned on the river. Police frogmen inspected bridges along the queen's route.

Ironically, she was greeted by the GLC's left-wing leader, Ken Livingstone, who originally opposed her attendance at the ceremony.

King Canute is said to have failed to stop the tides in the 11th century, although actually he only wanted to discourage the flattery of courtiers by proving the waves paid no heed to his commands.

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