Further to my report to the House last Thursday, 8 November 2007, column 365, volume 467, I would like to provide an update on the significant tidal surge which affected the coast of Eastern England last week.
On 5 November, the Met Office's storm tide forecasting service alerted us to a possible tidal surge in the North Sea later on in the week. By Thursday, it had become clear that there was a significant risk of potentially serious flooding in coastal areas of eastern England during the next 48 hours and the Environment Agency issued a number of severe flood warnings. Police Gold Commands were established in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex to co-ordinate the emergency response to any flooding, including evacuation where necessary and in line with the standing emergency arrangements, the Government's COBR committee was convened to ensure that all preparations were in place.
The Thames Barrier was closed as a precaution. High volume pumps were sent to the area and 21 water rescue teams were on stand-by to carry out rescue if needed. The Environment Agency also moved temporary barriers across country overnight from Worcestershire and erected them to protect an electricity sub-station in Great Yarmouth.
The peak of the surge passed down the eastern coast on Friday morning. Tides at Great Yarmouth were the highest they have been since the dreadful flooding of 1953. Fortunately, however, the surge levels were around 20cm lower than originally predicted and the wind direction more favourable than anticipated. While there were some relatively minor breaches and overtopping at individual locations along the coast, the defences performed well, few homes were flooded and thankfully no lives were lost. People have now returned to their homes.
A similar picture is emerging from other southern North Sea countries which were also affected by the surge.
We will need time to assess the impact of the flooding on the natural environment and biodiversity, notably the flooding of coastal marshes and saline intrusion into the Norfolk Broads and sensitive sites on the Suffolk coast. The Environment Agency are working with Natural England and the RSPB, but the full extent of any impact will not be known for some weeks.
That we did not witness similar scenes to 1953 is in no small part due to the commitment of successive Governments, over many years, which have invested considerable sums of money in strengthening both coastal and inland flood defences and established the sophisticated flood forecasting and warning systems which gave us crucial time to prepare. That investment included the Thames Barrier which provides a high degree of protection—and hence confidence—to London.
The operational handling of any event is vital, and the emergency services, local authorities, Environment Agency, Met Office, and others acted swiftly to warn those at risk and initiate precautionary evacuation. This is testament to the effective emergency planning arrangements we have in place which are tested regularly at local, regional and national level.
I would like to place on record my personal appreciation to all those who worked so hard during this incident, and for the public's co-operation at what have must been a very distressing time for those affected.
In contrast to the devastating impact of the 1953 floods, widespread flooding was avoided on this occasion. However we must remain vigilant to the risk of further such events.