1953 east coast flood - 60 years on
The 31 January marks the 60th anniversary of the East coast floods - described as the worst national peacetime disaster to hit the UK.
Exceptional weather conditions, coupled with an inability to warn people, meant that whole communities were unaware of the imminent threat from the devastating storm surge that saw many low lying areas of East Anglia and the Thames Estuary suffer severe flooding.
On the night of Saturday 31 January 1953 and morning of 1 February 1953 the North Sea was experiencing spring tides. A deep Atlantic depression passed to the north of Scotland and moved southeast down the North Sea. The northerly gales on the western side of this depression forced sea water south at the time of high tide, causing a tidal surge down the North Sea which locally exceeded 5.6 metres (18.4 ft) above mean sea level. The winds also generated very large waves in the North Sea that damaged coastal defences. A maximum gust of 126 mph was observed at Costa Hill, Orkney as the storm centre pressure fell to 964 hPa over the northern North Sea.
The combination of high spring tides, storm surge, winds and very large waves resulted in sea defences being overwhelmed in some locations, leading to extensive flooding. In England, 307 people were killed in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Nineteen were killed in Scotland, whilst 1800 people lost their lives in the Netherlands.
- 32,000 people were evacuated.
- 160,000 acres of land was inundated with sea water and not usable for several years.
- Estimated damage ran to £50 million at 1953 prices, approximately £1.2 billion at today's prices.
- Infrastructure including power stations, gasworks, roads, railways, sewage services and water services was put out of action.
What is a storm surge?
A storm surge is possibly one of the most dramatic weather events for the east coast. These are caused when deep depressions track east from the Atlantic, passing close to the north of Scotland. As the depressions move across the ocean the lower pressure causes the sea level to rise - for each 1 hPa drop in pressure sea levels rise by up to 1 cm - and the winds push the surface waters of the sea forward, a motion known as 'wind drift'.
On reaching the relatively shallow North Sea this water is forced southwards, eventually causing a pile up of water in the south. This is because the water cannot escape through the narrow Dover Strait and the English Channel and so gets trapped in the southern North Sea. The effect is enhanced by the strong northerly winds experienced on the rear flank of the depression as it continues eastwards.
As a result of the east coast floods an official service for forecasting coastal flooding - the Storm Tides Warning Service - was established within the Met Office. This is now provided through the joint Environment Agency and Met Office partnership in the Flood Forecasting, which benefits from continuously improved forecasting accuracy through the pull-through of science and technology in observations and the modelling of our weather in the Met Office.
Sixty years on, the Met Office can forecast the development and movement of this type of Atlantic storm accurately up to five days ahead. Our high resolution atmospheric forecast models coupled to ocean models provide valuable early warning of potential storm surges up to five days ahead and detailed, accurate guidance on the height of the surge and wave overtopping up to two days ahead.
Saving lives and property
The value of the Storm surge — November 2007 when, forecast strong winds combined with high tides indicated that, on the 9 November, some Eastern coastal areas could face their biggest storm surge for more than 50 years. From five days ahead the Met Office worked closely with the Environment Agency, the Cabinet Office, and emergency services to ensure emergency planning procedures were in place. On 9 November the actual recorded sea levels came to just 10 cm below the top of most of the sea walls in and around Great Yarmouth, within, according to the Environment Agency a 'hair's breadth' of breaching them.
Working together the Met Office and the Environment Agency are now in a better place than ever before to help keep people and property safe. The Severe weather warnings and the Environment Agency Flood Warning Service are both in place to help people plan, prepare, and protect themselves ahead of and during severe weather and flooding.
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Aftermath of the flood in Oude-Tonge, Goeree-Overflakkee, Netherlands
|Date||31 January – 1 February 1953|
|Location||Netherlands, Belgium, United Kingdom|
|Deaths||2,551 killed (1,836 in the Netherlands, 307 in England, 28 in Belgium, 19 in Scotland, 361 at sea)|
|Property damage||9% of total Dutch farmland flooded, 30,000 animals drowned, 47,300 buildings damaged of which 10,000 destroyed US$ 636 mln|
The 1953 North Sea flood was a major flood caused by a heavy storm that occurred on the night of Saturday, 31 January 1953 and morning of Sunday, 1 February 1953. The floods struck the Netherlands, Belgium, England and Scotland.
A combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm over the North Sea caused a storm tide; the combination of wind, high tide, and low pressure led to a water level of more than 5.6 metres (18.4 ft) above mean sea level in some locations. The flood and waves overwhelmed sea defences and caused extensive flooding. The Netherlands, a country with 20% of its territory below mean sea level and 50% less than 1 metre (3.3 ft) above sea level and which relies heavily on sea defences, was worst affected, recording 1,836 deaths and widespread property damage. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern province of Zeeland. In England, 307 people were killed in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Nineteen were killed in Scotland. Twenty-eight people were killed in West Flanders, Belgium.
In addition, more than 230 deaths occurred on water craft along Northern European coasts as well as on ships in deeper waters of the North Sea. The ferry MV Princess Victoria was lost at sea in the North Channel east of Belfast with 133 fatalities, and many fishing trawlers sank.
Realising that such infrequent events could recur, the Netherlands particularly, and the United Kingdom carried out major studies on strengthening of coastal defences. The Netherlands developed the Delta Works, an extensive system of dams and storm surge barriers. The UK constructed storm surge barriers on the River Thames below London and on the River Hull where it meets the Humber estuary.
On the night of 31 January – 1 February 1953, many dykes in the province of Zeeland, the southern parts of the province of South Holland and the northwestern parts of the province of North Brabant proved unable to resist the combination of spring tide and a northwesterly storm. On both the islands and the mainland, large areas of country were flooded. Many people still commemorate the dead on 1 February. In the Dutch history and culture this flood got the name of "de Watersnoodramp".
The Rijkswaterstaat had warned about the risk of a flood. At the time of the flood, none of the local radio stations broadcast at night, and many of the smaller weather stations operated only during the day. As a result, the warnings of the KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute) did not penetrate the flood-threatened area in time. People were unable to prepare for the impending flood. As the disaster struck on a Saturday night, many government and emergency offices in the affected area were not staffed.
As telephone and telegraph networks were disrupted by flood damage, amateur radio operators went into the affected areas with their equipment to form a voluntary emergency radio network. These radio amateurs provided radio communications for 10 days and nights, and were the only people able to maintain contact from affected areas with the outside world.
The Zeeland dikes were breached in 67 locations. Large parts of South Holland, Zeeland and North Brabant were inundated. In North Holland only one polder was flooded. The most extensive flooding occurred on the islands of Schouwen-Duiveland, Tholen, Sint Philipsland, Goeree-Overflakkee, the Hoeksche Waard, Voorne-Putten and Alblasserwaard. Parts of the islands of Zuid-Beveland, Noord-Beveland, IJsselmonde, Pernis, Rozenburg, Walcheren and Land van Altena were flooded, as well as parts of the areas around Willemstad, Nieuw-Vossemeer and parts of Zeelandic Flanders.
The highest death tolls were recorded on the islands of Schouwen-Duiveland and Goeree-Overflakkee.
Afterward, the government formed the Delta Commission to study the causes and effects of the floods. They estimated that flooding killed 1,835 people and forced the emergency evacuation of 70,000 more. Floods covered 9% of Dutch farmland, and sea water flooded 1,365 km² of land. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned, and 47,300 buildings were damaged, of which 10,000 were destroyed. Total damage is estimated at 1 billion Dutch guilders.
Near flooding of other parts
The Schielands Hoge Zeedijk (Schielands High Seadyke) along the river Hollandse IJssel was all that protected three million people in the provinces of South and North Holland from flooding. A section of this dyke, known as the Groenendijk, was not reinforced with stone revetments. The water level was just below the crest and the seaward slope was weak.
Volunteers worked to reinforce this stretch. But, the Groenendijk began to collapse under the pressure around 5:30 am on 1 February. Seawater flooded into the deep polder. In desperation, the mayor of Nieuwerkerk commandeered the river ship de Twee Gebroeders (The Two Brothers) and ordered the owner to plug the hole in the dyke by navigating the ship into it. Fearing that the ship might break through into the polder, Captain Arie Evegroen took a row boat with him. The mayor's plan was successful, as the ship was lodged firmly into the dyke, reinforcing it against failure and saving many lives.
The Afsluitdijk across the entrance of the Zuiderzee was said to have paid for its construction cost in that one night, by preventing destructive flooding around the Zuiderzee.
Several neighbouring countries sent soldiers to assist in searching for bodies and rescuing people. The U.S. Army sent helicopters from Germany to rescue people from rooftops. Queen Juliana and Princess Beatrix visited the flooded area only a few days after. A large aid program came on apace, supported by the radio. A national donation program was started and there was a large amount of international aid. The Red Cross was overwhelmed by contributions and decided to divert some of the funds to assist residents of Third World countries.
It was found that the flooding could have been 4 feet (1.2 m) higher; the Rijkswaterstaat's plan concerning the protection and strengthening of the dikes was accepted.  As a result, the Delta Works were authorized, an elaborate project to enable emergency closing of the mouths of most estuaries, to prevent flood surges upriver.
The North Sea flood of 1953 was one of the most devastating natural disasters ever recorded in the United Kingdom. Over 1,600 km of coastline was damaged, and sea walls were breached, inundating 1,000 km². Flooding forced 30,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, and 24,000 properties were seriously damaged.
Probably the most devastating storm to affect Scotland over the last 500 years, the surge crossed between the Orkney and Shetland Isles. The storm generated coastal and inland hazards, including flooding, erosion, destruction of coastal defences, and widespread wind damage. The storm's damage occurred throughout Scotland, with 19 fatalities reported. The fishing village of Crovie (then in Banffshire, now Aberdeenshire), built on a narrow strip of land along the Moray Firth coast, was abandoned by many of its inhabitants as entire structures were swept into the sea.
The surge raced down the East Coast into the southern North Sea, where it was exaggerated by the shallower waters. In Lincolnshire, flooding occurred from Mablethorpe to Skegness, reaching as far as 3 kilometres (2 miles) inland. Police Officers Charles Lewis and Leonard Deptford received George Medals for their part in rescue work; Charles Lewis leapt from the Police Station upper window to save an elderly couple being swept away in the 3' floodwater, carrying them to a house across the road to safety, then continuing rescue work for several hours until he found a working telephone to call for help. Leonard Deptford was off-duty at his son's party when the wall of water hit. He realised the elderly were the most vulnerable as the Roman bank was breached and he dragged and carried many to safety. At one house he found a bedridden elderly couple with their middle-aged daughter, so in the waist-high floodwater he lashed together oilcans to make a raft on which he tied the couple and dragged them to safety. He carried on till the next day, his last rescue being that of a dog.
In individual incidents, 41 died at Felixstowe in Suffolk when wooden prefabricated homes in the West End area of the town were flooded. In Essex, Canvey Island was inundated, with the loss of 58 lives. Another 37 died when the seafront village of Jaywick near Clacton was flooded.Reis Leming, a US airman, was awarded the George Medal for his bravery in rescuing 27 people in the South Beach area of Hunstanton.
In East London, water poured from the Royal Docks into Silvertown, where it drained into the sewers but flooded back out again in Canning Town and Tidal Basin. William Hayward, a night watchman at William Ritchie & Son, died of exposure to gas from a damaged pipe; he was the only fatality. Almost 200 people were made temporarily homeless and took refuge at Canning Town Public Hall.
The total death toll on land in the UK is estimated at 307. The total death toll at sea for the UK, including the MV Princess Victoria, is estimated at 224. Total damages were estimated to be £50 million (£1,280 million today).
The coastal defence of Flanders was severely damaged. Near Ostend, Knokke and Antwerp, heavy damage was done to the sea defence with local breaches. Twenty-eight people died, including noted Belgian musician Robert Dubois.
After the 1953 flood, governments realised that similar infrequent but devastating events were possible in the future. In the Netherlands the government conceived and constructed an ambitious flood defence system beginning in the 1960s. Called the Delta Works (Dutch: Deltawerken), it is designed to protect the estuaries of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt. The system was completed in 1998, with completion of the storm surge barrier Maeslantkering in the Nieuwe Waterweg, near Rotterdam.
In the UK, the Permanent Secretary to the Home Office, Sir Frank Newsam, coordinated the immediate efforts to defend homes, save lives and recover after the floods. After the flooding, the government made major investments in new sea defences. The Thames Barrier programme was started to secure Central London against a future storm surge; the Barrier was officially opened on 8 May 1984.
In 2013 a service was held at Chelmsford Cathedral to mark the 60th anniversary of the Great Flood, attended by Anne, Princess Royal. Acts of remembrance were also held in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.
Books, films and music
- The composition Requiem Aeternam 1953 by Douwe Eisenga was written as a commemoration of the flood.
- The composition Noye's Fludde of 1958 by Benjamin Britten evokes the memory of the North Sea flood.
- The Dutch public broadcasting foundation has made numerous documentaries about the North Sea Flood. Two have been adapted as English versions: The Greatest Storm and 1953, the Year of the Beast.
- BBCTimewatch made a documentary about the North Sea flood of 1953, called The Greatest Storm.
- An episode of the ITV series Savage Planet featured the flood.
- In January 2008, the Brighton-based band British Sea Power released their third album, entitled Do You Like Rock Music?, which includes the song "Canvey Island", referring to the floods.
- The 1953 floods were mentioned in detail in the drama film Flood (2007).
- In 2009 a Dutch action-drama titled De Storm (The Storm) was released.
- The book The Little Ark by Jan de Hartog, published in 1953, depicted the flood. It was adapted as a film by the same name in 1972.
- The short story, "The Netherlands Lives with Water", by Jim Shepard, contains a passage describing the event.
- The 1976 book Oosterschelde, windkracht 10, by Jan Terlouw is the story of the flood in Zeeland, Netherlands. The first part describes the storm, while the second part describes the later conflicts about constructing the Delta Works.
- The 2012 non-fiction book, The Sugar Girls, by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, describes the effects of the flood in East London, and on workers at Tate & Lyle's East End factories.
- John Wyndham's apocalyptic science fiction novel The Kraken Wakes (1953) includes a section in which the whole of the Netherlands is flooded due to aliens melting the polar icecaps.
- The flood is mentioned in the movie Bride Flight as one of the reasons some were emigrating to New Zealand.
- The flood is mentioned in Susan Vreeland's novel, Girl In Hyacinth Blue (1999), Ch. 5:¨Morningshine.¨
- The 2004 CD, "1953" by the dark ambient musical project, The [law-rah} Collective, is an instrumental "story" hauntingly and yet beautifully told in 7 "chapters" (tracks). The story of the flood is musically presented from the victims' point of view. The fear, stress and despair of such a devastating natural disaster is further enforced with the occasional addition of minimalist poetry in the form of spoken word. Borrowed from the artist's website, the premise is told here: "...in this moving interpretation a story told by unspeakable sounds unfolds, sparsely reinforced by touching and dramatic spoken word interventions. sophisticated in sound, evolution and intensity, every chapter of this story will grab your attention and keep you on the edge of your seat. an honest, sad and solemn auditory treat."
- The 1953 North Sea Flood and its effect upon the coastal-town of Lowestoft UK, is the subject-matter of a painting by British artist Mark Burrell.