East Anglia: How the modern world saved thousands of lives

Fields flooding near Redgate Lane off of the Wherstead Strand on Friday. Fields flooding near Redgate Lane off of the Wherstead Strand on Friday.

Saturday, December 7, 2013
10:01 AM

It was an event on a similar scale to great east coast floods of 1953 – but thanks to improved sea defences and modern technology the result was very different.

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1953: Hundreds died in similar storm surge

This week’s flood was on a similar scale to the great storm of 1953 – but the result was very different.

On the night of January 31/February 1 1953 a huge storm surge went down the North Sea causing devastation.

A total of 307 lives were lost in eastern England – including 38 at Felixstowe and 37 in Jaywick near Clacton on Sea. Another 1,800 died in Holland.

But the world of 1953 was very different to that in 2013.

This country was still recovering from the second world war and sea defences had not been a priority for some time. A nation struggling to return to normal life did not have millions of pounds to spend on such defences.

In places existing sea defences did hold – but many were simply not substantial enough to hold back the flood, and in some of these cases they actually added to the problem.

The sea was able to go over the sea defences, but was then trapped behind them when the tide receded – meaning the water did not clear as quickly as was needed.

There was not the technology to spot and track storms some time in advance that there is now.

Meteorologists did know a storm was brewing, but did not have the sophisticated computer models to accurately predict what would happen.

Even if they had known what was likely to happen, it was far more difficult to contact individuals to warn them of particular danger.

The only instant means of communication was radio – and there were limited frequencies. There was no network of local stations.

There was, of course, no internet and there was no Environment Agency database pinpointing every building at risk of flooding – complete with phone numbers and mobile numbers for text messaging their occupants.

And, of course, emergency planners have the example of what happened in 1953 and the conditions that came together implanted in their minds when they are making plans on how to deal with a similar emergency.

The number of people who remember those floods may be falling every year, but the black and white newsreel pictures remain. The Met Office charts remain. The appalling figures remain as a public record.

The legacy is a much-improved network of sea defences and a communications system geared to alert anyone who might be in danger – and its value proved its worth during Thursday night and yesterday morning.

No one died in yesterday morning’s floods – and officials do not believe anyone caught up in the disaster suffered serious injuries.

Some properties were damaged – but officials at the Environment Agency said that a comparatively small number of damage reports had come in so far.

Dr Charles Beardall, area manager of the Environment Agency, said the surge was similar to that in 1953 – but there had been a number of factors that had prevented a major disaster.

He said forecasting technology had enabled meteorologists to spot the surge developing earlier in the week and by Wednesday they were able to be confident about what would happen.

Modern information technology enabled the Agency to contact people at risk of flooding – 96% of people in homes at risk of flooding had signed up for alerts so it was much easier to let them know of potential danger.

The investment in sea defences had worked – resulting in only a limited amount of damage being reported.

And the co-ordination between the various organisations involved had worked very well – lessons learned in exercises had been very useful.

Dr Beardall said: “Over the last five years the Environment Agency has invested more than £80 million in sea defences in Suffolk, when you include the Ipswich flood defences where work is continuing.

“That investment has paid off. It’s helped to protect properties in Southwold, Felixstowe, Woodbridge, Thorpeness and Aldeburgh.

“It has cost a lot of money but it has helped protect the county from an event like this.”

The Environment Agency is one of the organisations which come together to form the Suffolk Resilience Forum, a statutory body that deals with major civil emergencies.

All counties have resilience forums which work under a “Gold Command” system, usually headed by senior police officers.

The Suffolk Resilience Forum first came together to co-ordinate the response to the flooding threat on Wednesday at the police headquarters at Martlesham Heath.

The forum includes emergency services, local authority officials, Environment Agency managers, and representatives from major utility companies like UK Power Networks, Anglia Water and the National Grid.

Suffolk Assistant Chief Constable David Skevington was one of the officers who was “Gold Commander” during the crisis.

He said the training that members of the Forum had done in advance was crucial – it enabled them all to understand each others’ role: “We were all talking the same language,” he said.

While those in “Gold Command” were able to deal with strategic issues and those in “Silver Command” were putting the strategy into effect, “Bronze Command” centres across the county enabled emergency services and other officials on the ground to decide who was best placed to deal with an incident.

Mr Skevington said: “These were often based in a fire station or police station – and enabled the bronze commander to decide what was the best response for each incident.”

This week’s flood was the largest civil emergency that the Suffolk Resilience Forum had had to deal with – and Mr Skevington felt it had worked well.

Emergency services had joined the Environment Agency in warning people – even knocking on the doors of homes in particularly vulnerable areas.

A key issue had been the use of new technology, especially social media and more traditional forms of putting out information, to tell members of the public what was happening.

He said: “In previous times there was the temptation to wait until we knew exactly what the situation is before issuing official advice.

“Today with social media and widespread communications we are able to respond to queries much more rapidly.

“We are able to say there are concerns and urge people to be aware of issues as they develop – and that undoubtedly helps in keeping people informed and enabling them to make the right decision.”

That was a point backed up by Dr Beardall.

He said: “In 1953 people went to bed not knowing what was happening and they were totally unprepared for what was happening.

“Today’s technology meant people were aware, had made plans and the result is there were no deaths and no serious injuries so far as I am aware.”

Mr Skevington said the Suffolk Resilience Forum response to this incident was likely to be wound up today and members would then analyse how the system had worked.

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