England - Lifeboats and military helicopters rescued hundreds of people overnight in northern England as torrential rain flooded homes and washed away bridges.

Police in the picturesque Lake District county of Cumbria, a magnet for tourists, said on Friday a search was under way for a police officer who disappeared when one bridge collapsed under the weight of water.

Emergency services said they were concerned about residents of 10 properties in the town of Cockermouth they had been unable to reach. Media reports said some trapped people had been forced to smash through their roofs to escape.

This is an extremely serious incident. We have seen unprecedented rainfall, said Environment Agency Chairman Chris Smith. The agency said 314 mm (12.4 inches) had fallen within 24 hours in one area, which it said was a record for England. The Meteorological Office said the amount of rain expected during the entire month of November had fallen in 24 hours.

Britain has been hit by severe flooding in recent years, raising questions about the impact of global warming. Last year the country saw its wettest summer since records began in 1914. Floods in 2007 affected 55,000 homes and businesses and left an insurance bill of around 3 billion pounds ($5 billion).

It was described to me this morning, this particular flood, as of biblical proportions, said Tony Cunningham, a member of parliament for Workington, one of the affected towns.

That gives you some idea of the scale and the force of the devastation, he told Sky News.

The Met Office said there was a better forecast for Friday but another 40 mm (1.6 inches) of rain could fall on Saturday, exacerbating the problem. Officials said there were four severe flood warnings -- meaning extreme danger to life and property -- in place for northwest England, and another eight in Scotland.

One witness in Cockermouth, the birthplace of poet William Wordsworth, told BBC radio he saw the water level rise rapidly from his top floor window.

In the space of about five minutes, from there being puddles on the main street there was about an inch of water right across it, and then it rose very quickly. Within a very short space of time people were wading knee deep and then belly deep. And it was going up so fast it actually got very scary.

Roads across northwest England and southern Scotland were closed and emergency services advised against all but essential travel in the affected areas.

(Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby; Writing by Michael Holden; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)