Weather under the microscope

After Felixstowe seafront took a battering, why were people caught unawares by massive waves yet again?

EVERYONE has tales of carrying macs and jumpers when the sun shone unexpectedly and the forecast showers failed to appear - and days when gales and lashing rain came from nowhere.

Mountain and hill walkers in particular take little notice of the weathermen for the forecast is often ridiculously wrong, the landscape of valleys and peaks creating its own special climate.

Life on the East Anglian coast can be a little like that, too.

In Cromer and Sheringham, northerly winds drive the seas smashing onto the beaches, putting communities at severe fear of flooding - while in Felixstowe, the same wind can offer shelter and a calm day by the coast.

But when that wind changes direction suddenly - as it did last week when high tides caused havoc at the Suffolk resort - it can catch everyone out.

Meteorologists had forecast northerly winds, but when they swung north-east late morning of Friday September 28, it turned a flat calm swell into a stormy sea that caused spectacular waves.

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The sea smashed onto the edge of the prom, shooting spray 30ft into the air, and swept across the walkway to flood gardens to around three feet deep.

As onlookers watched in amazement, the sea kept on coming - and even spilled over the sea wall into Sea Road, leaving the pavement down the seaward side several inches deep in water.

Huge chunks of the concrete prom near Manor End were broken, lifted and moved, coping stones knocked off walls and beach huts jostled together.

The Environment Agency must have been immensely pleased with its sea wall - while waves did wash over the top, the wall and its 30 steel gates held firm despite the enormous weight of water pressing against it, giving excellent protection to the homes and businesses in the area.

Coastguards said they had been “caught on the hop” and only discovered the worsening conditions late morning after a routine inspection of the seafront.

They immediately sent officers to the area to make sure the public kept off the prom and sea wall and to give safety advice.

High tides had been expected and the coast was on Floodwatch - the general and lowest alert for people to keep an eye on the sea - but it was the change in wind direction which was the culprit.

During the highest tides of the autumn and spring, Felixstowe's sea walls can cope without any problems - as they did at the weekend when the tide was higher but only splashes of water came into the gardens.

The key is the strength and direction of the wind, which will push the waves onto the coast or create a surge which makes the tides so much higher - and the ability for the authorities to give out such information, even if changes can be quickly discovered.

A spokesman for the Met Office said the wind last Friday had been forecast as northerly but - as often happens in coastal areas - it altered suddenly during the morning, switching to north-easterly and picking up strength with it.

“The East Anglian coastline is a very interesting area and a slight change in wind direction - just a few degrees - can sometimes make all the difference,” he said.

“The veering of the wind during the morning from north to north-easterly meant that instead of being sheltered Felixstowe would have been more exposed.

“The wind was certainly increasing as well.”

It picked up to around 35mph, powering the already high waves onto the shore.

Had Suffolk Coastal not moved 32 beach huts just the day before, they would have been driftwood. If the Shorebreak Café had still been perched over the beach it, too, would have been swept away.

The Met Office spokesman said Felixstowe's position at the funnel end of the shallow southern North Sea also made it more susceptible to potential problems - which was one of the main factors in the tragic 1953 floods.

Despite eroded beaches and the prom protected by tons of rock, plans are afoot to spend £10 million in this part of the resort with new rock groynes and beach replenishment to protect 1,600 homes, businesses and the port.

Retired engineer Norman Thompson, who has worked on sea defence schemes in neighbouring Norfolk, said the resort needed proper sea defences to ensure it was not flooded.

“I am not convinced rock groynes will work - I think we need a higher sea wall to be safe,” he said.

“This will not be the first time this autumn and winter that we have water flooding into the gardens and into the street - and if we have gales and wind in the wrong direction it could be a lot worse.”

Are you worried about flooding this winter? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail

FORECASTER Michael Fish made himself infamous when he assured TV viewers there wouldn't be a hurricane back in 1987 - only for the country to be battered by 100mph winds hours later.

It wasn't the first time the weathermen had got it wrong - and it probably won't be the last.

Back in 1953, hundreds lost their lives - including 41 at Felixstowe - as a deep depression rounded the top of Scotland, causing a surge that sent a wall of water down the North Sea and flooded dozens of coastal communities.

While the waves never overtopped the defences on Felixstowe seafront, the water swept up the River Orwell and burst through the riverbanks along Trimley marshes, sending the floodwaters into the resort's West End “from behind”, leaving the area six feet deep in water.

By the time the impending disaster was spotted, it was too late with the poor communications of the 1950s to spread the word - leaving people to literally die in their beds, unaware as the flood struck.

Today the Met Office has satellite technology, as well as its own weather stations and a network of observers, as it plots changes in the weather - helping officers to be more accurate in forecasting as well as advising of sudden changes.

Since the 1987 storm they have been noticeably more cautious - often warning of potential extremes which are never as severe as expected or fail to arrive altogether.

They also keep the Environment Agency up to date so it can issue its warning, though it was felt Floodwatch, the lowest level of alert, was adequate for last month's high tides.

FASTFACTS: Great storms

1703 - The worst storm in British history as 8,000 people - most of them sailors - died as winds of up to 80mph tore across East Anglia, leaving a trail of death and destruction.

1950 - Storms and a tornado sweeps through a 66-mile swathe of England, killing three people and damaging hundreds of homes. It is the longest trail on record for a tornado in England.

1953 - Some 300 people died when floods struck Britain's east coast. In Felixstowe, where 41 people died, one fifth of the town was flooded and it took four days for the water to recede.

1987 - Eighteen people died, hundreds were injured, as hurricane-force winds battered southern England, leaving a £1 billion clean-up bill.

1990 - Storms killed 39 people in England and Wales gale-force winds closed roads and ports, forced flights to divert from major airports, ripped up trees and damaged buildings.

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