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Real flood risk

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Over 24 hours in 1953, the great storm that was to devastate much of the UK was building. A catastrophe, assisted by the post-war limits of communications technology and predictive meteorology, was to wreak havoc across much of the east coast of England and the Netherlands.

In the UK, low-lying East Anglia was badly protected by eroded sand dunes, the coastline's 'natural' defences, because post-war spending had prioritised other things and the resources allocated to tidal barriers were limited. Some 24,000 homes were flood damaged, although only £1.5 million was claimed from insurance firms (about £60 per home), primarily because the insurance industry hadn't evolved into the major business it is today. The flood waters covered 60,000ha of land and left 530 people dead. This was just 50 years ago and yet no claims were made regarding global warming at the time (although maybe more cycnical environmental links might be made between the Great Smog of 1953 in which, some suggest, 12,000 people died in London in a week).

Canvey Island, situated below sea level, lost 58 people in what has been called Britain's biggest peacetime disaster. BBC's Timewatch has called this Britain's forgotten tragedy. In the Netherlands, there were 150 dyke breaches; 40,000ha were flooded, 50,000 homes damaged (9,000 destroyed) and 1,836 people died.

Much of this disaster could have been averted by better telephone networks (we now have mobile technology rather than communal payphones), an evacuation strategy (we now have road networks that facilitate the movement of large numbers), and by advance warning (we now have a globalised computer network instead of just isolated local weather stations). On the other hand, the damage could largely have been avoided by a rigorous flood defence network. The Netherlands certainly learned a lesson. However, even though damage-limitation measures are important, there is something to be said for not overestimating the risks and dangers of freak weather accidents.

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