Picture gallery: Norfolk flooding rescue exercise

Flooding minister Richard Benyon declared the region ready to cope with a tidal surge emergency after watching a dramatic rescue demonstration outside Norwich.

The Defra minister was at the Whitlingham Outdoor Education Centre at Trowse on Monday afternoon to release the findings of a report into Exercise Watermark, Britain's biggest-ever civil emergency exercise.

He took to the water with response teams and witnessed a staged rescue involving an RAF helicopter, lifeboat and fire crews, along with a host of other response agencies.

The drill featured equipment bought by Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service with �250,000 of Defra funding – 10pc of the total grants made following Exercise Watermark last March. Norfolk County Council matched the investment.

The money was spent on upgrading equipment carried on fire engines, new boats and 'rescue paths' – floating pontoons which can also be launched across the surface to act as water-borne stretcher for a casualty.

Mr Benyon praised the partnership between local agencies which also included the RNLI, RSPCA, Broads Authority, Environment Agency, ambulance service and volunteer groups including the Red Cross.

He said the value of such teamwork was clear in a region where the catastrophic floods of 1953 – which claimed the lives of more than 300 people along the east coast – were almost repeated in 2007's 'near miss' tidal surge.

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Mr Benyon said: 'One of the scenarios we tested in Exercise Watermark was a tidal surge. We know it was a very tragic event here in 1953 and we got very close to it in recent years. So we are right to assume that the risk of this happening in the next few decades is real.

'That is why we are putting considerable sums of money into flood and coastal defences, and making sure our early warning systems get better and better.'

Mr Benyon said the report's 36 recommendations were mainly 'organisational', dealing with communications between 'Gold Command' and services on the ground.

'I am hugely impressed to see the level of understanding between these agencies,' he said. 'People can be reassured that they are safe in their homes.'

Norfolk's chief fire officer Nigel Williams said: 'Defra has made a huge investment in fire and rescue services and our county has been a big beneficiary.

'I hope we never have to use this equipment. I hope it stays in the fire station. But if we do need to use it, it will be in a situation where the bad weather has come, it is dark, and people are at risk of losing their homes, their families and their friends.

'We have equipped ourselves to move people around when the time comes, and we are working together with our partners much better, so everybody knows what needs to be done – where, when and how.'

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