One of the reasons so many people lost their lives in the 1953 floods was the lack of an adequate warning system. In the aftermath, there was a resolve that coastal flooding would never again claim so many victims. MARK NICHOLLS reports.

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Amid the devastation and anguish that followed the massive coastal flooding of January 31, 1953, there was also great anger. Millions of gallons of seawater had flooded miles inland, smashing through sea defences, homes and farms, rushing mercilessly across the landscape driven by a freak set of North Sea weather conditions.

But no one told those who lay in its path that it was coming.

As the clean-up operation began, harsh questions along these lines were being asked in all quarters. It is fortunate that they did not fall on deaf ears.

There was a swift resolve that never again should so many people lose their lives in coastal floods because of a lack of an adequate warning system being in place.

On that night of flooding, the storm- tide surge down the North Sea, driven by freak winds, over-topped and damaged most of the existing sea defences. Breaches occurred in 1200 places resulting in disastrous flooding. A total of 307 people died in Britain, 24,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, including 5000 along the Norfolk coast, 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 useable for several years and more than 200 major industrial premises were badly affected.

The total cost of the damage was £50m.

It was acknowledged that there may again be more floods. It is now accepted as being inevitable, with the sea level rising due to global warming and the land mass falling as part of the ongoing post-Ice Age settlement.

But next time, people who lie in its path will have enough warning to save themselves, though probably not their possessions.

After the 1953 floods there was a major review of coastal defences throughout East Anglia, with many re-built. There is now a growing move toward managed realignment, more so in Essex and Suffolk. But despite the defence work – the Environment Agency spent £369m in flood-defence work last year – over 734,000 homes are still at risk from coastal and tidal flooding in England and Wales. In Norfolk there are around 25,000 homes at risk.

But the greatest legacy the floods left was the creation of a flooding early-warning system. The post-1953 flood inquiry examined how local authorities could better interact after it emerged that the lack of a co-ordinated warning system cost lives.

There were a few local warnings but nothing that proved effective on a grander scale.

After 1953 the Met Office set up the Storm Tide Forecasting Service to provide the Environment Agency with 24-hour forecasts of coastal flooding, surge and wave activity.

Each day the Environment Agency, created in 1996 with overall responsibility for flood defence and flood warning, uses tide tables and readings from around the coast to make adjustments according to the forecast weather conditions and whether the tide will be higher than expected.

Because of the warning and forecasting network, the agency knows many hours in advance of a potential flood threat.

It does a risk-management assessment on the level of the rise and the likelihood of flooding and when necessary puts out warnings to local authorities in time to enable them to respond effectively.

And most importantly, these warnings are now passed on to local residents, giving them enough time to evacuate their homes if necessary.

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