Page last updated at 03:53 GMT, Thursday, 24 September 2009 04:53 UK

Getting ready for the storm surge

By Phil Mackie
BBC News, Netherlands

Fireman Adrian Mayhew allowed the BBC to follow him during the exercise

Millions of people who live in low-lying coastal areas of the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium and the UK are at risk from a severe storm surge.

A major exercise is under way in the Netherlands in which British specialist rescue teams, as well as those from other European countries, are simulating what might happen in the event of a major North Sea flood.

The summer of 2007 saw the worst flooding in a generation in many parts of England and Wales, when more than 7,000 people were rescued from their homes.

During June and July that year the emergency services were stretched to breaking point.

Peter Glerum
We know that it will be impossible to evacuate everybody out of the area
Peter Glerum, project leader, EU FloodEx 2009

It is doubtful they would be able to cope in the event of a storm surge in the North Sea, without international assistance.

A combination of a deep low pressure system, spring tides, high river levels, hurricane force winds and heavy rain might breach defences, leading to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people on both sides of the North Sea.

"We estimate an impact on between approximately two and a half to five million people. We expect damage of above 100bn euros and we know that it will be impossible to evacuate everybody out of the area," said Peter Glerum, project leader of the exercise, known as EU FloodEx 2009.

Cross-border efforts

On the night of 31 January 1953 - the last time it happened - more than 2,000 people were killed on mainland Europe, 400 perished at sea and 300 died in eastern England.

Map of once in 200 years flood scenario for UK

It was the worst natural disaster in the UK's recent history. In November 2007, a last-minute change of wind direction narrowly averted a similar breach of the defences.

Similar floods have been recorded throughout Dutch history. One of the worst was in 1362.

Known as the Grote Mandrenke or "great drowning of men", it is believed to have claimed more than 25,000 lives.

Just as in 1953, the 2007 floods brought the lack of preparedness in the UK for a major flood event into sharp focus.

That is one of the reasons the exercise is taking place in the Netherlands.

Specialist teams from fire and rescue services in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as two volunteer crews from the RNLI, are training alongside their counterparts from Poland, Estonia, Germany and the Netherlands.

One of the major challenges was deploying all the equipment from the UK.

More than 30 trucks, many towing rescue boats, as well as other specialist vehicles travelled in convoy from the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire to North Holland.

Among those taking part is Adrian Mayhew, a fire-fighter from Evesham with the Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service.

Tidal surge

He put his specialist training to good use in 2007, when he spent four days working and only got a total of six hours sleep.

A sign warns of floods in a residential street in Upton on Severn near Worcester, England
Dramatic UK floods in 2007 revealed shortages in responses

He would be deployed either to the Netherlands or to Eastern England if there is a North Sea storm surge.

"We know it is an exercise, but we are treating it as real. Theoretically, a tidal surge could come in and affect hundreds of thousands of people," he said.

The Dutch authorities believe it would take five days to evacuate everyone who lives in a flood risk area, but that they would never have more than a few hours warning of a breach of the flood defences.

Inevitably, they believe tens of thousands of people, perhaps more, would be caught in the flooding and need to be rescued. It would be an operation that would require international support.

"Flood disasters are bigger and bigger. It is nice that we have from our international partners the capacity that we need," said Mark Rupke, from the Reddingsbrigade, the Dutch inland water rescue organisation.

That is why at a lake in the small town of Akersloot, hundreds of local volunteers have also taken part in Flood EX 2009.

They have been playing the parts of casualties. Some have been winched from rooftops, others plucked out of the icy water. Their job has been to make it all as realistic as possible.

Netherlands learns to go with the flow
16 Mar 09 |  Science & Environment
Flood victims 'still traumatised'
23 Sep 08 |  Humber
North Sea flood tide fears recede
09 Nov 07 |  Europe
New measures to tackle flooding
17 Dec 08 |  UK Politics

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