The flood of 1953 is the most devastating natural disaster recorded in the United Kingdom in the 20th Century. A severe north-westerly storm combined with a spring tide that caused large parts of Britain’s east coast to flood. In England 307 people did not survive the disaster, thousands of animals lost their lives and homes were also destroyed. In the Netherlands 1,836 people are reported to have died as dikes failed in 150 locations. ADA looks back at the disaster on its 65th anniversary.
A north-westerly storm developed on January 29, 1953, south of Iceland. On Friday 30 January, once it was clear that a severe storm was developing, the UK Meteorological Office issued its first weather warnings. However, the human impact was exacerbated by disruption to telephone and radio services, so that many of those affected received no warning, and were unaware of the scale of the disaster.
The storm crossed the North Sea just two days after the full Moon, interacting with the spring tides (when the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon combines to create the highest tide of the lunar cycle). The storm continued southward through Scotland causing extensive damage, with 19 fatalities reported. The fishing village of Crovie, on the Moray Firth, was abandoned as entire structures were swept into the sea.
The surge then passed down the East Coast of England during the night of 31 January into the southern North Sea, where the surge effect was intensified as the coasts of eastern England and the Netherlands funnel together and the sea becomes shallower. The combination of wind, high tide, and low pressure resulted in water levels of more than 5.6 metres (18.4 ft) above mean sea level in some locations. This was over half a metre higher than had been recorded during the previous 80 years and for many sections of coast it remains the highest recorded surge in the North Sea.
The flood and waves overwhelmed sea defences and caused extensive flooding. The powerful surge and associated waves scoured the seaward face of the defences while water that had overtopped or flowed through cracks and permeable layers eroded the inland face, leading to damage and collapse. Elsewhere, sand and earth fillings were washed out, undermining the embankments and again leading to collapse.
Over 1,600 km of coastline was damaged, and sea walls/embankments were breached, inundating 650 km². In Lincolnshire, flooding occurred from Mablethorpe to Skegness, reaching as far as 3 km (2 miles) inland. Water flooded up to 8 km (4 miles) inland around Cley on the north Norfolk coast, and to a depth of 1.8 m (6 feet) in Kings Lynn.
It was not just coastal communities that were at risk, as the surge travelled inland from The Wash along the Rivers Great Ouse and Nene, causing both rivers to overflow and break their banks. Along the south bank of the River Thames defences were breached, and the floodwater reached the top of embankments in central London.
Flooding seriously damaged 24,000 properties, of which 500 were totally destroyed. Around 32,000 people were safely evacuated and around 200 industrial facilities were damaged by floodwater.
One of the UK’s largest peace time military operations was immediately mobilised to rescue inhabitants from the floodwaters, and to temporarily repair and stabilise the damaged defences. At the operations peak on 12 February 1953, 30,000 emergency workers were involved. The huge repair and recovery operation meant that around 90% of the breaches in England were closed within a month.
The catastrophe revealed the inadequacy of coastal defences then in place and led to Britain’s largest sea defence improvement program. In the following years, defences were raised by up to 2 m (6.5 feet) and strengthened around population centres. The fear of a major storm surge flood in London eventually led to the construction of the Thames Flood Barrier near Woolwich, which became operational in 1982.
The storm surge also led to the development of the Storm Tide Warning Service, a national flood-warning organisation, which was created to improve the accuracy and efficiency of coastal surge warnings to the public as well as the authorities. Today this is provided through the joint Environment Agency and Met Office partnership in flood forecasting.
In the Netherlands an extensive system of dams and storm surge barriers known as the Delta Works were developed. You can learn more about the Dutch commemoration on the Rijkswaterstaat 65th anniversary webpage and by our sister association the Dutch Union of Water Boards.
The improvements to coastal flood defences since 1953 have significantly reduced the risk of such a flood occurring again today. ADA’s members continue to manage, maintain and improve the essential flood risk management infrastructure along England’s east coast and associated river catchments. It is important not to forget important events of our past so that we properly value these services today and ensure that we adequately invest as a society in flood risk management for the future given the increasing risks from climate change, growing populations and economic development and aging infrastructure.
More information: many of the key facts and statistics about the 1953 North Sea flood can be read here in this Retrospective by RMS (Risk Management Solutions).