70 years: have we learned from the Great Flood?

Reposted from our Extreme Weather Stories publication on Medium. Written for the anniversary of the 1953 floods, January 31st.

Former coastguard lookout in Aldeburgh. By GAmboseli — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=95457603

On the lookout

In the last days of January 1953, 70 years ago, my great grandfather Herbert Abbs, spent hours with his binoculars raised in his lookout tower at Aldeburgh. The lookout had to be a high tower because the land in coastal Suffolk is so low relative to the sea. The land has always been low but the town now sits at its lowest level in its history because the whole of Eastern England is subsiding gradually seawards. The tower also has to be high because this is treacherous coastline: beneath the water are constantly shifting shingle banks, which can ground or topple a boat veering off course. The coastguards, pilots and lifeboats here work hard.

All week, 70 years ago, Herbert studied the fractious weather and sea. He had been trained to do this well since early childhood, as the diligent son of a Naval training officer and promenade inspector, and then as a Naval officer himself in the First World War. As it typically is, the North Sea was gunmetal grey. But he felt something was odd about the heavy prison-blanket of a sky, about the wind and the waves. He made his calculations and knew that this was going to be a surge as high as the one in 1947, if not worse. Before a surge, the sea is lifted up towards the sky as if it is taking an enormous breath. He knew that this lift, followed by a massive surge onto the land, was going to happen. He did his duty by telling his superiors what he knew was coming, posting regular observations first by telephone later by radio, and ensuring that the town was readied for what was to be known as the Great Flood. However, his warnings did not travel as forcefully as the incoming tide, and preparations could only be made in a rush by local people, grabbing whatever they could.

On the night of 1st February the high waters burst over the sea wall and up from the river estuary South of the town. Aldeburgh suffered no loss of human life that weekend, which may be partly due to Herbert’s warnings and local preparations. It is certainly because Aldeburgh had so few temporary homes. Further up the coast, in Lowestoft for example, most of the victims lived in prefabs and caravans.

Just south of Aldeburgh is Orford Ness, the longest shingle spit in Europe. In this isolated spot, Herbert had served as coastguard in the 1930’s. Here some of the most advanced telecommunications innovations were being developed. The British were leading the world in radar and telephony thanks to the experiments being conducted there. Herbert’s own son-in-law, my Grandfather, Ronald Baldwin, was involved in laying the first telephone cable from the Ness under the sea across to Holland. Ronald helped the formation of an amateur radio network to communicate with the outside world and, in the days that followed, contributed to organising the work to clear up all the damage and to rebuild the broken banks. (As a hangover from the Second World War there were still lots of USAF and British forces in the area, so they provided vital help.)

My great grandfather with my great grandmother, c.1966.

When I was a child and Herbert was very old, having returned home to Sheringham, he would sit in his Captain’s chair sipping his dark-brewed tea with the wrestling turned up loud on the TV, while I sorted through a tin of buttons under the table. The story I recall him telling most often was an older memory, as his more recent memories were dying. This was about the capture of a German U-boat during the Battle of Jutland in the First World War. A clever and commanding sailor, he and his superiors had been in control of the situation and so he was in control of his story. The British Navy evaded the German dreadnoughts because of their intelligence and use of telecommunications in intercepting German radio signals. Also, the entire Grand Fleet communicated well with each other, following strict procedures. This would have been a traumatic and life-changing time for him so it’s no surprise he repeatedly told the story. But I think one reason he talked less about 1953 is that he found it harder to make sense of what had happened. 307 people died in East Anglia, and 2,000 died overall, most in Holland. Around 40,000 people in the region were made homeless and thousands of livestock drowned. The breakdown in communications and order during that incident must have been distressing to him. He did receive a medal for his role but I don’t remember him being proud of it.

So, if technology for communications was so advanced, how could they have failed so badly in 1953? Why did the authorities not act on his superiors’ warnings? What went wrong?

There was a basic communications failure. It was a weekend and so all the decision-makers and civil servants were taking a break. The gentlemen of the Cabinet retired to country residences at weekends. The gale force winds had blown down the telephone lines. No official body was coordinating national emergency communications to warn everyone around the coast.

Major floods had happened a few times in the past century but they had not caused such massive loss of human life, livestock or land in England for many years. It might be argued that so much effort had gone into defending the coasts against military attack and honing military communications that there was little attention given to the risk of flood.

Moreover, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the country was recovering from war, building homes and industrial infrastructure, not planning against the risk of freak events of nature. Where were many of these new homes being built? In coastal and estuary areas of course. The most significant reason for the extent of the casualties and damages in 1953 was this coastal development. The rate of coastal development has continued since the 1950s despite the dilapidation of many seaside towns because the land is often flat, cheap and plentiful.

Were lessons learned at the time?

Yes, to a certain extent. In response, the UK did evolve one of the best storm forecasting systems in the world. Work started immediately on improving sea defences, so that most of Norfolk is now defended. London was also affected in 1953, and still recovering after the Blitz, it was vital to protect such a major city. The Thames Barrier was completed in 1984 with a working life to 2060. It has closed 205 times so far and protects 1.42 million people and £321 billion of property. At the same time, the Dutch set to improving their defences, and later in 2008 with climate change in mind, increased their protection standard by a factor of 10.

Why does this story of 70 years ago matter to us today?

It has lessons because in so many ways our current Government is not heeding similar warnings. They failed to heed warnings about what would happen if we deplete the NHS, if we exit from the EU, or fail to limit corporate corruption. This story has lessons because development needs to be planned with geography and social justice in mind. It has lessons because it shows us how ordinary people collaborate locally to respond to disaster and to care for each other. But the biggest lesson is because climate impacts are getting worse and earlier than predicted, while the authorities interpret climate action almost solely as CO2 reduction (at some point in the distant future) and they neglect adaptation. Many of the sea defences built after 1953 are nearing the end of their life, and there is need for radical approaches to respond to the unprecedented threats of rising sea levels and worsening storms.

The Government has plans for a vast amount of rural home building and infrastructure development, with the Norfolk plan seeing around 85,000 homes built by 2030 (with large numbers in low-lying Kings Lynn and Great Yarmouth, and around 37,000 in ‘Greater Norwich’), and around 8,000 in East Suffolk where the coastal towns such as Aldeburgh and Southwold are taken over by holiday homes. Government has also green-lit plans for Sizewell C, a new nuclear power station north of Aldeburgh. Its environmental assessment says nothing of the threat of storm surges getting worse with climate change. Nuclear plants are not safe in a warming world, as flooding can knock out cooling systems, and wildfires are also a big threat.

In 2020, the Climate Central mapping tool of future flood risks, based on data from CoastalDEM, gained a lot of attention and caused some alarm. The Broads look to be entirely lost, and Norwich quite badly flooded. The entire Fens across Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire are shown as a disaster zone — Waterworld.

From EDP article, 2020

How do we read this in ways that can give us agency to create liveable places here, while also being realistic?

This mapping didn’t account for sea defences and other protective measures that might arise, and those that exist can be very effective, so there is a lot we can do. On the other hand, even since 2020, there is more evidence that signs of climate breakdown are appearing up to three decades sooner than projected. For example, the Antarctic is losing ice at twice the rate previously thought, and melting ice is the primary cause of rising sea levels. As I write, 35 flood warnings have been issued across the UK, which relates to floods from heavy rainfall rather than rising seas, but the increase in both rain and sea levels has a combinatory impact (e.g. heavy rain erodes coastal cliffs). On top of all this, it doesn’t look as if the international community is taking adequate action to reduce climate impacts. Before COP27 in late 2022, several reports showed that we’re falling far short of the Paris goals, with emissions rising and no credible pathway in place to limit warming to 1.5°C.

This image from ClimateCentral shows the risk to the Suffolk coast with a 1 metre sea level rise. However, they disclaim that this is a ‘bathtub’ model, showing permanent water level rising in relation to land levels, not accounting for the effects of storms and surging tides. It also doesn’t account for the diverse surface types in areas, which influences friction, or how fast or far water can breach. In other words, a coastal forest or richly biodiverse marshland would slow ingress much more than a car park.

Climate Central map search result showing land below 1 meters of water in Suffolk.

This understanding of landscapes and ‘soft defences’ is informing current thinking about coastal defence. If cliffs are protected, less sand is released to protect beaches further down the coast, showing the importance of systems thinking in planning. And if sea level rises are going to drastically accelerate, it will be impossible to build higher sea walls everywhere. The water will find a way, so it has to be let in somewhere there will be least damage. However, that ‘somewhere’ needs to be managed in greener ways to slow its progress and reduce wave heights, and for its plants to be able to cope with an increase in salt water. Mud flats and salt marshes are being seen as more valuable. The Suffolk Coast and Heath AONB is one of the test areas as one of four Pioneer Projects, involving the the Sea Change researchers at Universities of Cambridge and East Anglia.

This work involves the National Trust and other researchers looking at how to protect important heritage assets, and how to let them go involving communities. This includes processes of ‘palliative curation’, which is a “heritage practice that privileges persistence over preservation [and] allows the threatened heritage object to remain relevant and resonant, beyond the point of apparent disintegration” (Caitlin DeSilvey, 2020). To give an example, Lighthouse Songs is a project that I ‘palliatively curated’ in Orford, Suffolk. In this I worked with a composer Jason Rowland and Orford Primary School to research the history of Orfordness Lighthouse and to write and perform a song cycle as part of a memorial concert. The Lighthouse was very close to the shore, right next to the coastguard lookout that Herbert Abbs worked in before WW2, on a shifting shingle bank. It is now lost to the sea, having been dismantled pre-emptively. I believe this project has helped create a legacy for the Lighthouse by drawing out and exchanging stories of people’s lived experience, including about the 1953 floods. The children, now 7 years older, will retain these memories and have a greater sense of the value of the heritage of their place, and of its fragility.

This work is all about the effective and healthy combination of cherishing of places (and people, species and so on) as they have been and could be, and anticipating harms to them from development and climate change. I feel that I’m following in the footsteps of Herbert Abbs in this work I choose to do, looking at the horizon, sensing changes, trying to speak truth to power, and collaborating with people to be resilient to the changes that are coming.

Bridget McKenzie, from an album on Flickr

Thanks to Asher Minns at The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, for a critical contribution to this article.

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