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Bexley avoids 1953-scale damage in 'worst storm surge in 30 years'

PUBLISHED: 10:38 13 December 2013 | UPDATED: 10:38 13 December 2013

Errith floods

Errith floods

Archant

Last week, a tidal surge whipped up by huge waves swept up the River Thames after destroying homes along the east coast.

What is a storm surge?

High winds pushing the sea water towards the coast are the main cause, causing it to surge up estuaries and rivers. Low pressure at the centre of the storm can also pull water levels up by about 1cm for every 1millibar change in pressure. A similar effect happens when you drink through a straw.

Large waves on top of the surge created by the winds can surmount flood barriers.

The height of a storm surge depends on many factors such as the size and strength of the storm, the direction it approaches the coast, and the shape of the coastline and seabed.

Source: Met Office

The rare phenomenon was caused by a deadly windstorm, called Cyclone Bodil, which killed two people in England and one in Denmark as it moved across northern Europe.

It had the potential to bring sea levels up to the same height as in 1953 and areas as close as Greenhithe were put on flood alert for high tides at 1am and 1pm on Friday.

According to the Environment Agency, 13,000 homes are at risk of flooding in Bexley, but thanks to the defences built since the 1950s, Belvedere and Erith suffered little damage from the surge.

Ken Chamberlain, chairman of the Erith and Belvedere Local History Society, has seen many floods during his 78 years living in Erith.

He said: “They say this flood was as bad, but it’s hard to tell because the defences are so different now.

“When the river broke through the bank [in 1953] at Erith and Belvedere, it was just mudbank.”

Ken slept through the inrush of water on the night of January 31, 1953, and awoke to “utter devastation”.

The Thames had burst its banks in 11 places and most of Erith and Belvedere Marshes were inundated.

A sluice keeper there died and, as a young police cadet, Ken took part in the mission to rescue stranded families from their submerged houses using rowing boats.

Some 1,700 gipsies living on the marshes lost everything when they fled their homes and the water wiped out buildings and walls.

Even when the water finally drained away a fortnight later, the land was left so salty that in the ruined greenhouses, nothing would grow again.

The North Sea floods left 307 people dead and 40,000 homeless across England and prompted changes to weather forecasting and flood defences.

Over time, the flimsy walls and mudbanks protecting Erith and Belvedere were replaced with stronger, higher defences.

Ken said: “They didn’t finish the Thames Barrier until 1982 and I remember’ the defences in Erith being built in the Seventies.”

To find out how to prepare for floods, visit www.environment-agency.gov.uk or call Floodline on 0845 988 1188.

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