Last week’s tragic news reports remind PETER FROST of the east coast floods of 60 years ago

News bulletins and weather reports over the last few days have all reported that the storms and bad weather are the “worst for 60 years.”

The comparison is to the North Sea floods of 1953, one of the most devastating natural disasters ever recorded in Britain.Over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of coastline was damaged and sea walls everywhere were breached. Flooding forced 30,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, and 24,000 properties were seriously damaged.

The storm occurred on the night of Saturday January 31 1953 and morning of Sunday February 1 1953.

The floods caused massive damage, devastation and loss of life across England and Scotland as well as the Netherlands and Belgium.

Like our current weather, the 1953 events started with a devastating storm – the worst for at least 500 years – sweeping across Scotland.

A violent and huge tempest flooded between the Orkney and Shetland Isles.

The storm caused flooding and massive erosion. It destroyed coastal defences all along Scotland’s east coast. Nineteen people died here north of the border.

The surge and the accompanying gale-force winds raced down the east coast into the southern North Sea.

Here the shallower waters exaggerated the high tidal effect. Sea levels climbed even higher.

In Lincolnshire flooding occurred from Mablethorpe to Skegness and sea water flooded the flat fenland fields for many miles inland.

Thirty-eight people were drowned in Felixstowe in Suffolk when the town’s postwar prefab estate, built to accommodate those who had lost their houses to wartime bombing, was lost in the waves.

Low-lying Canvey Island near Clacton, Essex, was hit hard with the loss of 58 lives.

Jaywick Sands, an Essex coastal town that also suffered in the current floods was another major victim. The tiny holiday settlement saw 37 of its inhabitants lost to the flood.

In east London, water from the Royal Docks flooded Silvertown where it burst the sewers.

Two hundred people left their homes and took refuge at Canning Town Hall. One man, a factory watchman, lost his life. The country mourned for a total land-based death toll of 307.

In addition a ferry, MV Princess Victoria, went down in the storm off Belfast with a loss of 133 passengers and crew. Add to that other shipping losses, especially hard-hit North Sea trawlers, and deaths at sea totalled 224.

In 1953 it was a combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm over the North Sea that caused the devastating tide.

The 1953 water levels reached more than 18 feet (5.6 metres) above mean sea level in some locations.

The flood and waves defeated the sea defences of the day and caused extensive flooding.

In the Netherlands 1,836 people perished in the floods and storms. Twenty-eight more were killed in West Flanders, Belgium.

To avoid such a disaster happening again both the Netherlands and Britain carried out major studies on strengthening of coastal defences.

In the Netherlands they developed the Delta Works, an extensive system of dams and storm surge barriers to protect low-lying areas.

Here in Britain we built some storm surge barriers, notably on the Thames below Greenwich and on the Humber.

Other works were planned and further barriers were discussed. However work was often slow to start.

For instance, in places like the Norfolk Broads, one area that suffered in the 1953 floods, work finally started on the Broadland Flood Alleviation scheme in 2001. It will not be finished until 2021.

As the storm battered the country Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that he had asked his Environment Minister to chair a special meeting on the storm disruption, adding that he was ensuring all government departments and agencies were “doing all they can to help with storm.”

Environment Minister Owen Patterson called the Cobra emergency committee together to organise the giving out of sandbags and evacuating houses. As so often, it was too little, too late.

Frankly it would have been more impressive if Cameron, Nick Clegg and Paterson hadn’t spent the last three years slashing budgets and staffing levels at the Environment Agency.

The agency is our first line of defence against floods, and the people entrusted with ensuring that the terrible 1953 disaster would never be repeated.

This article was first published in the Morning Star on 9 December 2013


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