Soldiers, sea rescue workers, firefighters and mountain rescue teams were working through day and night in Cumbria on 6 December after the north-west was hit by flooding that observers say has been on an unprecedented scale.

Prime Minister David Cameron is to hold an emergency meeting in London on 7 December to coordinate the response to the aftermath of the severe weather swept in by Storm Desmond across the northern British Isles. Tens of thousands of homes have lost power supplies in north-west England, and 50 severe flood warnings were in place in the area.

Trains running from London to Scotland via the main north-west line had been cancelled and it has been reported that two hospitals were among those hit by power outages. Around 200 homes were evacuated in Carlisle where Britain's lifeboat rescue service and mountain rescue teams were at work. John Whiteley of Cheshire Fire and Rescue, in a team dinghy, outlined that the dangers were not just from the water.

"The water's contaminated," he said. "You've got petrol, cars, you've got sewage, so you've got all sorts of diseases. The other thing is hidden stuff underneath the water. You've got wheelie bins, garden fences with spikes on, grids."

Residents who have lost access to their homes or face severe damage face a bleak Christmas season. Footballers from local team Carlisle United have offered to help flooded-out residents. Their own ground has been submerged under the floodwaters. Provisional figures show that 13.4in of rain fell on Cumbria in a 24-hour period.