Legacy of the great sea flood of 1953

Rebuilding the dunes after the 1953 floods

Rebuilding the dunes after the 1953 floods

It was exactly sixty years ago, in 1953, following the great North Sea Surge when the East Anglian dune defence system was broken through and three hundred people drowned. The government of the day resolved ‘never again’ and promptly set to work installing defences.

But they had said the same thing following the 1938 Horsey flood (see video) when millions of gallons of seawater broke through the raging dune defences to flood miles inland ruining agricultural land, despite the fact that adequate warnings were given on the ailing state of the dune defence system long before this event.

The authorities were similarly warned prior to the 1953 sea surge, when again the sea smashed through the deteriorated sea defences, homes and farms, rushing mercilessly across the landscape driven by a freak set of North Sea weather conditions. As prior to the older flood 15 years earlier, no warnings that it was coming had been given to those who lay in its path , and no notice had been taken of the earlier warnings of ailing sea defences.

On that night of flooding, the storm tide surge down the North Sea, driven by freak winds, burst through and/or over-topped and damaged most of the existing sea defences. Breaches occurred in 1200 places along the East Anglian coastline resulting in disastrous flooding. A total of 307 people drowned in Britain, 24,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, including 5000 along the Norfolk coast alone, and more than 32,000 people had to leave their homes.

Two large power stations and many smaller installations, along with 12 gasworks, were put out of action, and 200 miles of railway and 100 miles of road were impassable. Around 46,000 head of livestock were lost, 160,000 acres of agricultural land inundated and not usable for several years and more than 200 major industrial premises were badly affected. The total cost of the damage was £50m, far more than was needed to maintain the defences.

As the clean-up operation began there followed great public anger, with harsh questions being asked by many. Their infuriation did not fall on deaf ears. The result was a swift resolve that never again should so many people lose their lives in coastal floods because of a lack of sea defences and that an adequate warning system be put in place, resulting in a swift response by the provision of sea walls, groynes, maintenance of the dunes and an adequate flood warning siren system. Then there began a major review of coastal defences throughout East Anglia, with many re-built.

But here we are sixty years later with a marked new inundation threatened. The flood warning sirens have been abandoned Few of the sea defence groins remain in good condition due to lack of provision and poor management as severe cuts in funding for coastal defence have prevented this. The ‘Making Room for Water’ and the so called ‘Managed Retreat’ policies have resulted in Shoreline Management plans which mean that many vulnerable sections of the coast are now left undefended. Offshore aggregate dredging continues leading to the depletion of our beaches and the consequent undermining and collapse of dune defences. Climate change is bringing more powerful and more frequent longer lasting northerly eroding gales. Global warming is bringing more sea expansion by thermal expansion and icecap and glacier meltdown whilst atmospheric carbon dioxide is still increasing.

The damage done to our beaches and dunes in this last two weeks alone, as depicted in other items on our website, is far greater in the overall cost to the coastal environment, the tourist trade, shoreline industries and property values than properly instituting a comprehensive coastal defence system .

The Environment Agency spent £369m in flood-defence work last year, not nearly enough to protect in the same adequate way as Holland for instance, who lost 3,000 souls in 1953 and learned a lesson. The UK continues to myopically fail to address the damaging threat brought about by marine aggregate dredging. There are now over 734,000 homes are still at risk from coastal and tidal flooding in England and Wales. In Norfolk alone there are around 25,000 homes at risk.

PG 11/04/13

 


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