The devastated caravan park area betwween Langer Road and Walton Avenue in the 1953 floods at Felixstowe

Floods of 1953: Could a disaster of the scale of ‘53 ever happen again?

Friday, February 1, 2013
11.15 AM

DESPITE the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on sea defences along the east coast in the past six decades since the great floods of 1953, the big question remains – could it happen again?

Keeping coastal residents safe

More than £50 million has been spent on sea defences at Felixstowe in the past 25 years – giving the town state-of-the-art protection for the next century.

Rising sea levels – due to climate change – and the deterioration of older defences have meant that action was needed.

Experts who drew up the plans for the latest defences – the £10million scheme completed last year from the War Memorial to Jacob’s Ladder – calculated that unless that work was done, in decades to come cliff collapse and erosion could see nearly quarter of a mile of coast disappear, including homes, businesses and attractions.

Over the years a string of schemes have been built along the resort’s five-mile coast.

From defences along the golf links between Felixstowe Ferry and Old Felixstowe, to The Dip, Brackenbury, the main seafront, south of the pier and Landguard.

In the 1953 floods the water did not come from the sea but the river, where the surge forced its way through the river banks.

Today the port and its 15 metres high quays – not sea defences but a substantial barrier – stand between and would almost certainly stop a similar flood.

Richard Cornwell concludes his week of special features on the 1953 floods with a look at the threat still faced by people living on the coast.

Flooding has hit the headlines regularly over the past few years.

Those affected are living on floodplains or close to rivers which have burst their banks in torrential rain, and in the past extremely wet year, waterlogged ground has been flooded again and again.

But those living on the coast have survived scares but seen little flooding in recent years, with hundreds of millions of pounds having been spent on modern sea defences to protect them, plus a thankful lack of storms lashing the shores.

Felixstowe’s £20million new coast protection schemes – south of the pier and the new Central Felixstowe scheme from Jacob’s Ladder to the War Memorial – have not been tested by a fierce easterly storm.

Storms though will arrive again.

It was only five years ago that a sea surge brought waves into the seafront gardens with water lapping just inches from the top of the Town Wall in Sea Road, a benign sea bereft of wind preventing an overtopping and threatening homes.

The big question remains though – could a flood like that of 1953 happen again?

For Felixstowe, the general consensus among the experts has been probably not.

On January 31, 1953, the floodwater didn’t come from the direction most would have expected – over the prom and into the seafront streets. Instead, it came from behind. The sea surge sweeping south in the North Sea from the low-pressure fuelled storm, which started in the north Atlantic, to meet the incoming tide from the south.

This sent a huge surge of water into the River Orwell, and with nowhere for it to go, it breached the river walls in seven places sending a wall of water across Trimley Marshes, through the small dock area and straight into the low-lying West End area of Felixstowe.

The water reached 9ft at RAF Felixstowe, and more than 6ft in Langer Road, where homes’ ground floors were flooded, and prefabs ripped from their foundations, floating off with people stranded on roofs.

Today the experts say a similar flood would not happen – with the enormous quays of the Port of Felixstowe standing in the way.

It is today a very different landscape to that of 60 years ago.

But that doesn’t mean that the resort is free from the fear of flooding.

With rising sea levels, climate change and the vagaries of the weather, flooding from the sea is still a very real possibility – though defences are now designed to deal with storms like that of 1953, reckoned to be a one-in-a-hundred year chance.

Experts though say the same weather conditions, or worse, could recur.

Big improvements in the flood warning system mean that such a loss of life though is unlikely. Even in “unprotected” rural areas people would, in theory at least, have plenty of time to evacuate to higher ground.

Major flood defence schemes mean that centres of population along the coast are now much better protected – even though massive storms can still cause havoc even in the best prepared areas.

As the annual flood defence budget comes under increasing scrutiny, the Environment Agency is unable to fund the maintenance of all the river walls it once looked after – walls which protect farmland from flooding.

Public-private partnerships are now being created in some areas where landowners are prepared to put some of their own money into flood defence.

However, financial constraints mean the agency is unable to protect the entire coast from flooding and it believes that, because of sea level rise, sea defence maintenance in some areas is financially unsustainable and environmentally undesirable.

A wall built along the whole coastline would cost billions to build and maintain and, even then, would be vulnerable to nature.

Also, a continuous wall would destroy many of the wildlife habitats so important along the Suffolk coast, a shoreline which has been changing its shape for thousands of years.

Inter-tidal habitats such as saltmarsh, would be starved of the water which makes them so valuable.

Mark Johnson, the Environment Agency’s area coastal manager for Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, said: “The key difference to 1953 is the forecasting capability we now have.”

At the time of the floods 60 years ago, people further down the coast were completely unaware – they were still carrying on their normal lives as people in Lincolnshire were drowning.

“In 2007, for instance, we were able to put out severe flood warnings 22 hours in advance to enable safe evacuation in daylight the day before,” he said.

Mr Johnson said those living in the area could now sign up to a flood warning register.

Better links were being forged with the tourist industry to try to ensure that the occupants of holiday accommodation in vulnerable areas would be made aware of flood warnings.

Investment in sea defences in recent years has included schemes at Southwold, Walberswick, Aldeburgh, Felixstowe, Ipswich and Woodbridge.

However, the sea defence budget is limited. “We have to use taxpayers’ money to obtain the best benefit we can achieve,” Mr Johnson said.

■ Tell us your memories of the 1953 floods – write to Your Letters, Ipswich Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN, or email starletters@archant.co.uk