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Studying the impact of last year’s tidal surge is vital for the future

PUBLISHED: 10:00 07 December 2014 | UPDATED: 10:00 07 December 2014

An aerial picture of the coastline at Salthouse before the tidal surge struck. Picture: Dr Tony Dolphin, Cefas.

An aerial picture of the coastline at Salthouse before the tidal surge struck. Picture: Dr Tony Dolphin, Cefas.

Dr Tony Dolphin, Cefas

One year on from the biggest UK storm surge for 60 years, new aerial photos have revealed details of breaches to the natural and man-made coastal defences on part of the East Anglian coastline.

The incredible impact of the storm is clearly visible with breaches to natural and man-made coastal defences.  Picture: Dr Tony Dolphin, Cefas.The incredible impact of the storm is clearly visible with breaches to natural and man-made coastal defences. Picture: Dr Tony Dolphin, Cefas.

Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (Cefas) are mapping selected areas hit by the surge on December 5, 2013.

• Remembering the night the worst floods in 60 years swept through Norfolk and Suffolk

• ‘Warrior spirit’ keeps the Hemsby community fighting after last year’s tidal surge

Nigel Williams, Chief Fire Officer of Norfolk

On the late evening of January 31 and early hours of February 1, 1953, a combination of high spring tides and severe windy weather caused sea levels over 18 feet above normal tide to well up.

Norfolk, along with Lincolnshire, Suffolk, and Essex suffered the tragic loss of 307 lives, communities were devastated and given a chilling reminder of the immense power of nature – with the ever-present threat of it happening again.

Who, then, would have thought that in the 60th anniversary year our communities would again be visited by a similar event? As 2013 drew to a close, with our focus on the festive season, those who monitor our weather reported that another combination of high spring tides and wind was to make another appearance.

A week before December 5, a picture of two weeks of sustained heavy rainfall, winds, and tides, of the same order as seen in 1953, emerged.

As forecasts became more accurate and days ticked down, it became clear the weather would mete out a storm like the one experienced some 60 years earlier.

Communities, volunteers, flood wardens, emergency services, the environment agency, councils, and many others put into operation well-rehearsed and exercised plans.

Along our east coast the close personal connections in all services pulled together a broader plan to summon resources from around the parts of the UK, not affected by this weather, to be deployed and ready.

On the evening of December 5, the onslaught began.

A day of high winds ended in tides and rainfall that surpassed those of 1953. Extensive damage to coastal flood defences, homes, businesses, vast areas of nature reserves, roads and inland waterways called on us all to work together through a desperate weekend to protect ourselves.

Thankfully, no lives were lost, however, there was extensive damage and loss.

Had it not been for our communities, our services and volunteers all pulling together, this could have been so much worse.

In the days, weeks and months afterwards, our communities needed practical, financial and emotional help and arms wrapping around them in a community hug.

The EDP launched a hugely-successful campaign which raised funds of more than £300,000 and I personally saw the power of people working together.

• Lowestoft could benefit from £3million council funding for flood defence works

• One year on from the tidal surge Hemsby receives good news in battle to save beach

Although damage to flood defences was much lower in 2013 than in 1953, there was still extensive change to the coastline, damage to seawalls, and saltwater flooding.

The work is part of a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded short-term project to better understand the initial environmental and societal impacts caused by the 2013 storm surge and the resulting saltwater flooding. Such understanding is vital for developing improved responses to such events in the future and mitigating their impact.

Dr Trevor Tolhurst, lead scientist on the project and lecturer in UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “This project is a once in a lifetime opportunity to collect data to improve our understanding of the impacts of a severe natural event and investigate how these events are perceived and responded to.

“Due to their rarity, our understanding of the impacts of these large storm surges on coastal habitats is poor.

“It is essential that such events are included in the investigation of future changes to our coasts and in the development of appropriate response strategies.”

• Attraction needed £3m repair programme

December 5, 2013, is a day which lives long in the memory of Nigel Croasdale.

Mr Croasdale, general manager of Hunstanton Sea Life Sanctuary, waited in the building as the tidal surge crashed onto the beach shore.

The flood severely damaged the sanctuary, (pictured), and put the business on the sidelines for ten months, with the sea creatures having to be sent elsewhere while repairs were carried out. Mr Croasdale, said: “I close my eyes and still picture that day, the water up to a metre high, and the damage and devastation it left behind.

“I knew there was a flood warning and put sandbags down expecting a couple of inches, but never expected what followed.

“It didn’t take long to realise we would be shut the following day and this was a major event.”

The fish were relocated to other facilities before the sanctuary was reopened on October 16 after a £3m repair programme. Mr Croasdale, said: “It was very hard psychologically, particularly in the summer, seeing everyone walk down the promenade enjoying themselves, and then looking at the building site which was the sanctuary. But today I am so happy because the quality of the centre has never been better.”

• Cinema takes a year to recover

Business at East Coast Cinema suffered after the floods, but owner Michael Hansell said he’s optimistic for the future.

“We’ve spent the entire year recovering,” he said. “Once we realised we were going to miss out on the school Christmas holiday trade, our focus was on reopening in time for the February half term.

“We couldn’t miss two school holidays, people would forget we were here.”

Mr Hansell said that although the cinema’s insurance covered most of the repair work, they had to contribute and took the opportunity to carry out extra refurbishment while it was closed.

He said: “Things have picked up now and 2015 is probably going to be one of the best years for cinema. We’re very optimistic and we’ve got so many sandbags we’re ready for anything.

“It’s still difficult looking back on the night. I don’t think anyone really expected it. It was a shock, a huge shock.

“But there was so much help from the council and the EDP Flood Appeal, we were really grateful.”

• Ian Brennan, of Save Hemsby Coastline

On the evening of December 5 I was attending a fundraising event in the Lacon Arms in Hemsby. Talk of ‘the storm surge’ was all over the media, but none of us knew what was coming our way. At about 10pm people began coming in telling of incredible high tides, with the sea levels several metres above normal. Within half an hour the lifeboat shed was lost to the sea. The cliff was quickly eroded, and five houses became very dangerous.

A request for volunteers came over the microphone and people, including my wife and I, left the fundraising event and went to help the poor people who were losing their homes.

I was in one house helping, with Jonathan Thompson hanging over the edge with a torch to watch the foundations and five minutes after we pulled out of it, because it was tilting, it launched into the sea like a ship. It was held for a few seconds by the still live electricity cable, which stretched, snapped and cracked like a whip and then the house was gone. It floated for a few minutes, then the sea just folded it up and it was gone.

The Lacon Arms became a rescue centre, and it was surreal watching people in their best ‘going out clothes’ carrying furniture and meagre belongings through the storm to safety to try and help.

My strongest memory of the night was of a guy, he lived alone in the third house to go over, who said ‘I don’t know anyone along here, and I’m a bit of a loner. I thought I was going to die then total strangers appeared at my door and pulled me and everything I own out to safety.’

The spontaneous acts of kindness, generosity and bravery I saw will live with me forever.

• David Powles, EDP assistant editor

It wasn’t supposed to happen.

During my 15 years in journalism, warning stories about disastrous weather or raging tides set to devastate our communities are a fairly common occurrence.

Normally, the script follows the same path, national press prints a scare story, we speak to local weather experts and they calm those fears and tell us how it really is going to be.

Only this time it was different. It was clear very early on there was more substance to the ‘be prepared’ messages being released by the authorities than I’d ever known.

In the newsroom we first realised this was no normal winter warning at around lunchtime on December 5.

News came through that the army was on its way to the region to help get people prepared. When the story starts to feel like a film, that’s when you know it’s a serious business.

So advanced is the technology used to map these things that we had been given indications the tidal surge was likely to reach West Norfolk at around 8pm – and sweep across the coast from east to west. The few hours beforehand were very strange, eerie even, with all sorts of questions and possibilities swilling around our brains. Heaven only knows what it must have been like for those likely to be in the worst hit areas, waiting and wondering if by morning your life will have taken a new, horrible, turn.

Also poised were the dozens of EDP journalists and photographers despatched to our communities, ready to work through the night providing vital up-to-the-minute information online and capturing the essence of the story for our papers.

And then it started, pretty much right on cue the waves crashed over the walls at King’s Lynn and Hunstanton. In the office the phones started buzzing, on social media Twitter started to flutter.

From West Norfolk the surge threw itself over the coast like a blanket, covering Wells, Cromer, Mundesley, Walcott, Hemsby, Lowestoft and Southwold. Dramatic stories started to emerge and the team worked frantically through the night to encapsulate the scale of the damage. And while it was devastating that so many lost their homes and possessions, fortunately the damage was limited. Tears were shed, but at least not for lost loved ones. 
So much of that was down to the efforts of so many to make sure the region was prepared when the waves came.

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