Flood of 1953: Protecting Kent from another surge

The Lord Nelson pub in Sittingbourne
Image caption During the 1953 storm surge, the Lord Nelson pub in Sittingbourne was surrounded by flood waters up to 10ft (3m) deep

Ever since towns, villages and farmland were flooded by a 20ft (6m) storm surge in 1953, scientists and engineers have been looking at ways of protecting the people and property of Kent from the sea.

About 5,000 acres of land were flooded after the storm surge of 1953 and thousands of farm animals died along what was once the Wantsum Channel.

The two-mile-wide channel which separated the Isle of Thanet from the Kent mainland, allowed large ships to sail from Deal to Reculver until it was allowed to silt up in the 1600s.

An earth bank was then built at its northern end, and the newly dried up land used for farming.

During the 1953 storm the wall was severely damaged and water rushed through, flooding the low-lying farmland.

'Might be breached'

Paul Marshall, of the Environment Agency, said: "Because the land is so flat, the water quickly spread to Sarre near Canterbury, about four miles from the sea, with the water 12 to 15 feet deep."

The new wall, built following the floods, runs for three-and-a-half miles between Minnis Bay and Reculver.

It was designed to protect the Kent coast from waves up to 14ft (4m) higher than a normal spring high-tide.

Mr Marshall said: "The defence it gives to the land behind it is immense."

"We have done everything we possibly can to protect the land behind the wall.

"One day, it might be breached."

Herne Bay defences

After the floods in 1953, Herne Bay Urban District Council built new sea defences.

Ted Edwards, a flood defence engineer from Canterbury City Council, said: "Unfortunately the wall was very ugly, being pebble dashed, and virtually cut off the town from the sea front.

"A lot of Herne Bay people called it 'the Berlin wall'."

Work is due to start in February on upgrading Herne Bay's defences to deal with storms of the strength only seen every 250 years.

Mr Edwards said: "There would be a small amount of flooding, obviously, but at Herne Bay there would be nothing like what happened in 1953 and all the residents will be well protected."

Image caption On 13 February 1953, the Queen visited Kent to see the devastation

At Deal, a new 400m wall has been built either side of the pier designed to reduce the power of the waves, further north a rock barrier has been built and the beach has been strengthened with tonnes of shingle.

A £10m scheme of defences by the Environment Agency in and around Deal will protect the Thanet coast and Sandwich Bay areas too, as well as the railway line between Ramsgate and Dover.

More than 1,400 homes and 148 commercial premises in the Deal area will be protected, the agency said.

In Sandwich, a £20m scheme is being proposed with 8 miles (14km) of flood walls being built on either side of the River Stour.

Work is due to be complete in Spring 2015 and will protect the Discovery Park site - the former Pfizer site.

Forecasting floods

The Environment Agency now has computer systems to forecast floods and issue warnings.

Ian Nunn, from the agency, said: "In 1953 we couldn't tell people what was happening. The first they knew about it was when the water came through their front doors."

More than 70,000 people around Kent can now receive a message as part of the flood warning service.

"We can start thinking about events 48 hours before they happen.

"The important thing is for people to be aware that it could happen again. They need to sign up to flood warnings."

Image caption Areas of Kent were hit by the storm surge on the evening of 31 January 1953

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