East coast prepares to face 'great flood'

For the older residents of eastern England's coastal villages, it must have seemed like the pre-Second World War days revisited.

They were told yesterday that a system of siren warnings and evacuation notices had been established in readiness for possible evacuations ahead of floods which may hit the east coast next month.

The alignment of the Earth, the Moon and the Sun during September and October mean that tides will be the highest in 20 years - and even higher than predicted if wind and weather is adverse. The Environment Agency (EA), which has just been forced to cut its flood defence budget by £15m because of a funding crisis at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), arrived in the town of Hunstanton in Norfolk to prepare East Anglians and urge precautionary action.

The town, which was hit brutally by the "great flood" caused by high tides in 1953, was urged to register with the EA to receive direct flood warnings, and was introduced to a new Precautionary Evacuation Notice (PEN) system, involving electronic signs and siren warnings. Despite the EA's recent £10m investment in flood defences for the village, it is feared that high winds and low pressure could - as in 1953 - lead to a storm surge, resulting in a tide up to 10ft higher than expected.

"We are very worried [about next month's high tides]," said Geoffrey Smith, the mayor of Hunstanton, where 180,000ha of land was lost in 1953.

"Not only was 1953 a very serious occasion but in 1978 there were also major floods [in which] this area lost the promenade and pier. In Heacham [a village two miles away which is largely below sea level] caravans and properties were smashed to smithereens. If the tide is in the wrong direction and the wind is behind it and keeps it in, there's very little [that can be done] and the elements will take over."

Nigel Woonton, flood risk manager at the EA, said the evacuation procedures were designed to give the emergency services and householders nine to 18 hours' notice of the need to evacuate.

The concerns, which will seem perverse to those encountering a hosepipe ban after a two-year drought in the South-east, are confined to an area of coast between King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth - though residents on Yorkshire's North Sea coast are also worried.

Yorkshire expects a £2m cut to its own flood defences because of the Defra funding crisis and is still recovering from flash floods 12 months ago that created havoc in the Ryedale and Hambleton valleys.

Professor Andrew Watkinson, of the University of East Anglia's Schools of Environmental and Biological Sciences, predicted the risk of flooding would increase as a result of rising sea levels and that storm surges would get worse.

The EA accepts that some parts of the British coast will be sacrificed to the sea. David King, the director of water management at the EA, said: "The traditional way we had of managing [this] was about flood defence and putting in large structures. But there will be areas where we will look to realign to the coast." Mr King told the BBC that the Defra budget crisis had forced it to take "unpalatable decisions" about flood defences and that he now wanted a "proper settlement" from Defra for future funding.