UK Storm Surge Threat Recalls Britain's Worst 20th Century Natural Disaster

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By Julian Kossoff | December 6, 2013 12:57 AM EST

Norfolk town of Hunstanton flooded 1953

The Big Flood was the worst natural disaster to befall Britain during the 20th century, and the scale of its human impact was due to a lack of adequate disaster preparations.

On the evening of 31 January 1953, a great storm surge swept down the east coast of England and overcame the fragile sea defences, leaving 307 people drowned or dead from the effects of exposure, before crossing the English Channel into Holland and devastating the lowlands where 1795 people perished.

Of the 307 UK deaths, at least 216 occurred in five main clusters along the east coast: Mablethorpe and Sutton-on-Sea (16 dead), Hunstanton and Snettisham on the Wash (65 dead), Felixstowe and Harwich (over 40 dead), Jaywick (37 dead) and Canvey Island (58 dead).

From Kings Lynn and along the Wash, it devastated the whole of the Norfolk coast right round to Lowestoft on the Suffolk border.

The quiet Norfolk town of Hunstanton on the tip of the Wash received the brunt of the sea's assault. Huge swathes of seaside property - homes, chalets, caravans, amusement parks, beach huts - were destroyed and the loss of life was 31 dead including 16 American servicemen and their families who were billeted around Hunstanton.

Many heroic rescues and rescue attempts were undertaken spontaneously by individuals trying to protect their families or their neighbours. Some perished in their attempts, or were unable to drag people to safety in the numbingly cold water. Among the first to mobilise in the chaos and extreme weather conditions were US Air Force servicemen from their base at Scunthorpe, who rushed to the lower Hunstanton area to rescue American and British families, and were on the scene in under an hour.

Corporal Reis Leming, a non-swimmer, rescued 27 people before collapsing from exposure; he became the first non-British recipient of the George Medal.

Paradoxically, today the risk of catastrophic flooding remains significant, as higher and stronger defences built after the 1953 event have given people new confidence to live in low lying coastal areas. In the last 50 years the coastal population has boomed.

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