East Coast floods kill hundreds
The 1st of February 1953 AD
A once in 250 years event is how the 1953 floods are often described. A high spring tide, an extraordinary area of low pressure, and exceptionally strong winds combined to produce a massive tidal surge that devastated eastern coastal areas in England, though the effects were even more horrific in the Netherlands, where more than 1,800 people lost their lives in the resultant flooding.
The tide on the night of January 31 1953 was to be a very high spring tide, but that in itself would not have caused major problems. It was the storm centred over the North Sea off the Scottish coast that created the freak conditions. At one point a low pressure of 966 millibars was recorded, almost 50 millibars below what would normally be expected. For every millibar pressure drops, the sea will rise a centimetre, so the low would have seen sea levels rise almost half a metre.
The storm associated with that low pressure created winds that moved southwards, pushing the sea towards the land. In Suffolk that night winds reached hurricane force. In places waves of six metres were seen dashing against the coast, and many miles of sea defences crumbled beneath the natural onslaught.
January 31 was a Saturday, another factor in the scale of the tragedy. Many official offices were closed, reaction to the developing circumstances was thus slower than it might have been, though no coordinated flood warning system existed at that time anyway.
The floods moved southwards round the eastern coast of England. Lincolnshire was hit first, the sea defences at Sutton , Mablethorpe and the surrounding areas smashed by the elements. Forty-one drowned there.
As the full force hit Kings Lynn 15 more victims were claimed by the waters, and further round the North Norfolk coast 66 drowned. At Sea Palling on the eastern coast of Norfolk seven more deaths were reported, followed rapidly by ten in Great Yarmouth .
The floods hit Essex around midnight, eight lost in Harwich and 58 at Canvey Island . When the sea wall at Felixstowe gave way further north in Suffolk 40 more died who should have been evacuated from their low level wooden prefabs. At Jaywick in Essex 37 met their end in the early hours of February 1.
The final death toll was recorded as 307 on land, but the conditions at sea had of course been equally appalling. The ferry Princess Victoria had to be abandoned, with 133 from this vessel losing their lives. Trawlers were overwhelmed, coastal vessels smashed. More than 200 died at sea.
After the event tragic stories came out. Children slipping into the waters from roofs where they were trying to escape the flood waters. A train in Norfolk hitting a building uprooted by the floods. Families stuck for nearly two days waiting for rescue. Police forces unaware of what was happening and missing the opportunity to evacuate those in greatest danger.
There was the inevitable national outcry after the event, with some 30,000 people temporarily homeless and at a time when food supplies were still fragilely poised 100,000 hectares of agricultural land under salt water. The Met Office put a storm tide warning system in place, and sea defences were improved. But when conditions such as those on the night of the great floods of 1953 arise, there is only so much that man can do to counteract them.
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