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Last Updated: Friday, 9 November 2007, 13:11 GMT
Devastating power of 1953's tide
1953 storm surge
Sea defences take a battering in the storm surge of 1953
It is not the first time a storm surge has hit the UK.

The huge strength of these abnormal tides was witnessed with tragic results nearly 55 years ago, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives.

A fatal combination of a high spring tide and gale force winds, caused by a severe atmospheric depression, led to the east coast being battered by the North Sea on the night of 31 January, 1953.

Flood defences were broken through as sea water swept up to two miles inland, inundating low-lying areas and flooding thousands of homes.

Coastal towns in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent were battered as sea water surged into the streets.

Loss of life

The emergency services struggled to cope, many residents were forced to spend the night on rooftops awaiting rescue.

As dawn broke on the morning of 1 February, it quickly became clear that Britain had suffered one of its greatest peacetime disasters: 307 people in English coastal towns and villages had lost their lives.

At King's Lynn, Norfolk, the sea level was 2.2m (7ft) higher than a normal high tide and a 1.8m (6ft) wave crashed through the centre of the town. More than 60 died between King's Lynn and nearby Hunstanton.

About 13,000 people were evacuated from Canvey Island, Essex, and 60 died.

I can remember walking up to the cliffs with my parents and watching the pounding seas - the waves were halfway up the cliff wall
Alan Shirley
As well as those who had perished on land, more than 177 people were lost at sea. Many died in capsized fishing boats and more than 130 were killed when the Irish Channel ferry Princess Victoria fell victim to the storm.

About 24,000 homes were damaged and more than 30,000 people moved to safety. In the region of 50,000 animals were killed.

In all, a 1,000-mile stretch of the British coast, from Shetland to Kent, was affected.

The storm's impact on the Netherlands was even worse. The deathtoll there exceeded 1,800, mostly in the south-western province of Zeeland.

Child's memory

Alan Shirley was seven years old when the 1953 storm surge struck. The 61-year-old from Kingston upon Thames recalls watching the waves crashing against the cliffs near his childhood home in Pakefield, near Lowestoft.

He said: "I can remember walking up to the cliffs with my parents and watching the pounding seas. The waves were halfway up the cliff wall, or at least that's how it seemed to me watching them as a child, thumping right up there."

Mr Shirley said he knew his parents had lost some friends who had drowned in the flooding. But as a young boy he was spared an adult's comprehension of the scale of misery the freak tide had caused.

He said: "My strongest memory is living without power and gas for what seemed like ages. We would cook on open fires. It was quite fun as a child."

In the wake of the storm, work began immediately to repair the sea walls along the UK coastline to prepare for the high spring tides two weeks later. The cost ran into millions of pounds.

Global warming

At the time, the 1953 storms were deemed to be an aberration of nature and unlikely to happen more than once in 250 years.

More recently, scientists have said factors such as global warming are making freak weather more likely.

Tewkesbury flooding
Some blame climate change for weather like Tewkesbury floods
The summer floods of 2007 caused widespread damage to homes and businesses across large parts of England.

Heavy rain in June saw severe flooding in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and the Midlands.

About 7,000 homes in Hull and more than 1,200 in Sheffield were affected.

The following month, swathes of England and Wales were left inundated after intense rainfall led to rivers bursting their banks.

Seven people died when the River Severn burst its banks in Gloucestershire, and more than 350,000 people were left without running water after a treatment works was submerged.

If the climate change scientists are right, it seems that Britain could face more extreme weather in the near future.

BBC archive footage from the 1953 floods

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