Much of the east coast of England has been placed on severe flood alert amid fears that lives could be lost and property destroyed by a huge tidal surge.
Gordon Brown chaired an emergency meeting last night to discuss the threat from a 10ft wall of water whipped up by gale-force winds racing down the North Sea.
Eight severe flood warnings were announced around the East Anglian coast, with Norfolk and Suffolk expected to bear the brunt of the massive waves early this morning.
Amid fears that sea defences could be breached across the region, an emergency operation swung into action in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Thirty thousand sandbags were distributed in the town which suffered severe flooding just a year ago.
Elderly and vulnerable people were moved out of low-lying areas and 14 emergency centres were set up in readiness for people forced to leave their homes. All schools in Great Yarmouth will stay closed today.
Residents near low-lying sections of the Suffolk coast were advised to leave their homes as up to 1,300 properties could be hit by the highest floods for half a century.
Ten flood warnings were also issued – six covering vulnerable parts of the north Norfolk coast, such as Brancaster, one in the Norfolk Broads and three around the North Yorkshire towns of Whitby and Scarborough.
Twenty-four further flood alerts were sounded covering virtually the entire eastern coast from Northumberland to Kent. Among the areas covered were the Humber estuary, the Lincolnshire coast, the Essex towns of Clacton and Southend and sections of the Kent coast, including the Isle of Sheppey and Margate. All were said to be at risk of localised flooding. An Environment Agency spokesman warned: "We expect flooding. We're warning people there's an extreme danger to life and property."
The Dartford Creek and Thames barriers were shut last night to protect the capital from the surge of water. Andy Batchelor, the Thames tidal flood risk manager, said: "These closures... serve as a reminder to us all that living in the flood plain is never without risk."
Emergency preparations for the tidal surge were also underway across the North Sea in the Netherlands and Belgium.
The Prime Minister called a meeting of the Cobra emergency response committee. John Healey, the Floods minister, said: "We are making sure that the public are getting the information they need to prepare as best they can. Cobra will be on full alert through the night and the Prime Minister will be keeping in close touch."
Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, warned MPs last night of potentially serious flooding over the next 48 hours.
Mr Benn told MPs: "A tidal surge of up to three metres is making its way down the North Sea which could coincide with peak high tides. There is a risk of flood defences being over-topped on the coast and in tidal rivers, especially in East Anglia, particularly the Norfolk Broads and the coast south of Great Yarmouth including Lowestoft, and areas south of this as far as the coast of Kent."
The Environment Agency warned that the conditions were similar to those before the notorious floods of 1953, when more than 300 people died after large parts of the East Anglia coast were left under water.
"It's comparable but we're much better prepared now," a spokesman said.
Paul Bettison of the Local Government Association said: "Emergency planning teams in areas at risk from flooding are on full alert and ready to assist anyone who is forced to leave their home because of weather or flood damage.
"Anyone living by a river, coastal or flood risk area must be prepared. There are lots of precautions you can take. People should sign up to the Environment Agency's automated warning system, so they get a call the moment there is a risk their home could flood.
"People should also move all their valuables and irreplaceable items such as passports, certificates and wedding photos upstairs and out of the way."Reuse content