The future for a coastal village

RICHARD BATSON A month ago the coastal village of Walcott was awash with sea water after it became the biggest Norfolk casualty during the worst storm surge for 50 years.


A month ago the coastal village of Walcott was awash with sea water after it became the biggest Norfolk casualty during the worst storm surge for 50 years.

The waters have now ebbed away, and most of the county is still heaving a sigh of relief at its lucky escape, while officials pat themselves on the back for a job well done in handling the potential crisis.

But it is a different story back at Walcott, where a swamp of anger continues to eddy around the streets where people found themselves wading knee-high in floodwater amid drifting debris. Villagers who endured that traumatic night of November 9 still feel let down by a flood response system that left them sleeping in their beds as the sea knocked at their front doors.

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They want to keep sirens - deemed obsolete by officials - and to see them being activated by local flood warden volunteers, who they say have a clearer picture of danger on the ground than people in control rooms miles inland.

At the weekend, as the local MP and councillors went to receive an update on the damage, villagers' emotions were running high.

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This week, Jill Dewsbury will move to a holiday cottage at Roughton, near Cromer, rather than face Christmas in a hotel room with her two dogs while her bungalow floors are replaced. She hosted a gathering of neighbours, who armed her with facts and opinions to take to a meeting in the new year to discuss the sirens.

Residents, who can also question the authorities at another meeting in the village hall on Wednesday, could not understand why Walcott was only on a low-level “flood watch” alert when stretches of coastline either side were on higher-ranked warnings. Others recounted tales of lifeboatmen offering to help on the night and being turned away by untrained, ill-equipped police, whose control room was said to be “chaotic”.

The only bouquets went to local flood wardens who, said Mrs Dewsbury, deserved bravery awards for plucking residents, some of them elderly and infirm, from their homes after officials refused to sound the sirens in case it caused panic.

As he cleared rubble from the garden of his seafront home, Stuart Richards said: “I would rather be panicked than dead.”

He is waiting to find out if his bungalow needs rebuilding or just repairing. Like many others, he is in a temporary home but vowing to return because of the joy of living by the sea.

Mr Richards said: “We understood the problems of being by the sea when we moved here. We just need good warning, including the sirens, to help us get out in time, rather than being given 10 minutes at three in the morning.”

Caravan park owner Trish McCarthy is living in one of her own vans, after floodwater ruined her house. “At the end of the day we cannot stop the floods, but it would have been nice if we could have got out of here without getting wet,” she added. By this she meant earlier warnings through the sirens.

Ray and Glynis Teece, whose bungalow at the sea end of Archibald Road suffered £3,500 of damage, have also had a letter from the Environment Agency saying the problems on the storm night were made worse when its floodline telephone system, which sends warnings to households in danger areas, suffered a “technical fault” between 6.30pm and 10pm, stretching the already hard-pressed manual phone operators. “They are putting a brand new siren system in at Grimsby, so why is it the way forward there and supposed to be obsolete here?” asked Mr Teece.

After touring the village, North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said: “People are feeling very frustrated and angry about what happened. Lessons must be learned so the whole procedure is more resilient when it happens again, which no doubt it will.

“This shows an overwhelming case to keep the sirens, and to give flood wardens more powers to activate them rather than remote places using an Environment Agency system that did not work.”

A countywide review of the sirens is currently under way, with their future likely to be decided next year.

County councillor Paul Morse said he hoped the authorities would admit they got it wrong on the night and had let people down badly.

The Environment Agency maintains that the flood warning level it issued for Walcott was correct. It says a combination of large waves, wind direction, scoured beaches and a lack of drainage in the village caused the flooding. To try to improve future predictions, a buoy has been placed in the sea off Walcott to build up wind and wave data.

A sign outside the boarded-up Kingfisher café on the seafront reads: “Work is now starting after the devastating storms and tides. This could take a few months and we will do our best to keep you informed, but rest reassured we'll be back!”

It is similar to the signs of defiance outside destroyed homes and businesses along the Mississippi Gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina flattened the bricks and mortar of dozens of US communities, but not their spirit.

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