Protection - but for how long? The Thames Flood Barrier Copyrighted image Credit: BBC

The storm of January 31 1953 is described as the worst peacetime disaster that the UK has known. It killed 307 people and 30,000 were evacuated - but that is only part of the story. On the same night 132 people out of 172 passengers and crew died when they abandoned the British Rail ferry, Princess Victoria, in heavy seas, and across the North Sea another 1,835 people were drowned as the dykes gave way.

In the intervening fifty years it is only luck that has prevented it happening again - and no-one doubts that a similar storm surge will come again. The difference is that next time there will be an early warning so people can evacuate and move to higher ground, and at least some of the sea defences will be strong enough to withstand the storm.

In 1953 there was a combination of an intense low pressure heading down the North Sea, hurricane force winds and a high tide. As a result a huge mound of water was pushed south down the North Sea creating a high tide up to 2.5 metres (8ft) above normal.

The first event of January 31 was when the Fleetwood trawler, Michael Griffiths, sank off the Hebrides in the early hours without trace. At 1.45 pm the Princess Victoria was abandoned off Belfast and another 132 died. At 5 pm the first sea walls on the Lincolnshire coast gave way and waves over 6 metres high (20ft) crashed onto homes, drowning 41 people.

The tide, continuously getting higher and higher, ran down the East Coast. In the Wash, King's Lynn lost 15 people, and a few miles round the coast, in the small village of Heacham, 66 lost their lives. As the night wore on every coastal town and community on the East Coast was battered by the storm. In total there were breaches in the sea defences in 1,200 places, and thousands of animals were drowned.

There was no flood warning system and the first most people knew about their danger was when water several feet deep crashed into their homes. In a single night in the South and East 24,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Canvey Island on the Thames Estuary was the last to be hit in the early hours of February 1, with 58 people being drowned. In London the water lapped the top of the embankments in Victoria and Chelsea. If the defences had been breached the tube would have been submerged too.

It took nine months to drain all the flood water and make temporary repairs to the sea walls. In typical British fashion a committee was set up to consider flood defences, particularly in London. As a result, 30 years later, the Thames Barrier was built. Already it is realised this will not be enough to keep the sea out in 20 to 30 years. Work is already starting on a project to design a stronger replacement to defend the next generation of Londoners against the sea.

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