Flood alert: the aftermath

East Anglia escaped serious flooding by a “knife edge” yesterday despite the storm surge being on the same scale as that which caused devastation in 1953.

East Anglia escaped serious flooding by a “knife edge” yesterday despite the storm surge being on the same scale as that which caused devastation in 1953.

Meticulous emergency planning, better sea defences and a little help from Mother Nature spared the coastline any major damage, according to experts.

But just 20cms was the difference between relatively minor breaches and what could have been mass flooding.

People, including the thousands who had been evacuated on Friday night as a precaution after the biggest flooding alert for decades, were able to return to something like normality yesterday as the threat passed.

The Environment Agency gave the all clear for the majority of the coast by lunchtime yesterday and the rest in Suffolk followed later in the day - though some warnings were still in place inland, particularly along the river Yare.

There had been fears that waters would rise by 9ft (2.75m), making it the highest tidal surge since the floods of 1953 in which more than 300 people in coastal towns were killed.

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In the event, water levels peaked around 8in (20cm) below that figure, ranking this surge behind the 8.7ft (2.65m) tides seen in 1953.

Andrew Watson, director of the prestigious Tyndall Centre for Climatic Change Research based at UEA, said: “What happened was very similar to what happened in 1953, including the surge levels. We escaped by a knife-edge. If it had been 20cm higher it would have been a different story.

“But even if there had been a flood, because of better sea defences and also the planning of the Environment Agency, the Met Office and emergency services it is unlikely there would have been any loss of life and, because people were warned in advance, likely minimal loss of property. It is very encouraging.”

But Prof Watson warned that rising sea levels meant flooding on such a large scale could become more common.

An Environment Agency spokeswoman said: “There were two elements to this - a high tide and the surge. What happened was the surge and the high tide hit at slightly different times which meant the water was not as high.”

There were dramatic scenes in Yarmouth, one of the areas most at risk - but by 8am - though the water had seeped through the Haven Bridge and flooded Southtown Road - it appeared to have stabilised.

Meanwhile, the prime minister chaired a pre-dawn emergency meeting on the flood danger to the east coast yesterday in 10 Downing Street.

The 6am ministerial gathering was the second 'Cobra' session on the subject he had led in under 12 hours. And a third emergency meeting, this time under the chairmanship of environment secretary Hilary Benn, took place at lunchtime yesterday.

Speaking after the early morning meeting, the prime minister said he hoped people would be assured everything was being done to ensure their safety.

“Our first priority is to ensure people are safe, and that's why over the course of yesterday and throughout the night we have been bringing in the helicopters, the sandbags, the preparations that are absolutely necessary so that people are safe”, he stressed. “National government stands ready to help local communities with any difficulties that arise”.

Asked about government financial help, the official spokesman later replied: “It's early days yet. But there are well-established procedures in place for government assistance towards the cost of clear-ups.”

But flood recovery minister John Healey and East of England Minister Barbara Follett visited Yarmouth yesterday.

Mrs Follett said: “We could have been only 20 centimetres away from a possible disaster. But thanks to a little help from Mother Nature, our sea defences and the magnificent work of our emergency services and partnership agencies we averted one. I also want to praise the stoical nature of the people of Yarmouth, who showed typical British courage in the face of adversity.”

Walcott on the north-east Norfolk coast was one of the worst places hit - with a 3ft deep flood stretching from the sea to the village hall at its peak.

About 100 people sought refuge at the Lighthouse Inn and several people had to be rescued by fire fighters.

Emergency planners said contingencies to cope with the threat of a tidal surge had all gone as expected - but briefings were already being lined up to see if improvements could be made.

County and district council staff had been on alert since 9am on Thursday after the first Environment Agency flood warnings were received.

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