Great Yarmouth sees river rise - and fall again

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The waves were crashing against the sea walls at Great Yarmouth yesterday as the flags along the front were whipped by the winds. But, apart from the odd large puddle, there was little evidence of the watery Armageddon that had been predicted.

The seaside Norfolk town had been warned, along with other east coast areas, that life-threatening flooding was on its way. The Environment Agency (EA) feared that a combination of gale force winds and high tides could inflict a surge reaching 2.7 metres high along the coast. Not since 1953, when 307 people lost their lives as the sea invaded two miles inland had anything of this scale been experienced.

By Thursday night the people of Great Yarmouth were on the beach with shopping trolleys, loading sandbags after the council supplied 45,000 of them. Flood barriers ringed the electricity substation that powers 31,000 homes.

As the predicted 7am surge approached, Norfolk police were knocking on doors, urging residents in high-risk areas to take refuge upstairs or go to one of the four local schools set aside as shelters. By 5am, 7,500 properties had been visited and 1,050 people taken to rescue centres; hundreds more to refuge with friends or family. Schools closed, care homes emptied and buses stopped.

The EA issued eight severe flood warnings, 15 standard flood warnings and 25 further flood-watch alerts nationwide, concentrated in East Anglia, the North-east region and on the south coast. In London, the Thames Barrier went up. In Lowestoft in Suffolk, residents left their homes.

Across Great Yarmouth, families, many of whom had suffered floods before, were piling valuables and electrical goods out of harm's way then settling down for the expected onslaught. They watched the river Yare rise until it touched the bridge, but by 9am most realised they had escaped.

The flood barriers had held and the only problem had been water coming up drains in low-lying parts of the town. The water reached two feet at some points around the quay and Town Hall, but a few damp sandbags and the odd watery patch were all that was left of the extreme weather.

An exhausted resident, Marie McGovern, said: "It is a relief after all that worry. It has been an emotional night." The 36-year-old accounts assistant was called at 5.30am by a friend who said she had to get out of her house immediately. Placing as many sandbags as she could around her front door, she accepted the offer of accommodation at his house.

"Coming back this morning. I didn't know what to expect. I could hardly sleep worrying but luckily we were all right."

People up the coast in Walcott were hard-hit: storms breached the sea wall, causing severe damage on a housing estate and blowing caravans and boats across the road. Six people were rescued from flooded homes.

"I've been here 13 years and it was the worst I've seen it," said Gary Stubbs, 47, who runs The Poachers Pocket pub. "The waves were big, I'd say 12ft. But we choose to live here and we're used to the sea. It's nature and there's nothing you can do to stop it."

Areas around the Humber and along the Lincolnshire coast got the all-clear. In north Kent, residents were asked to remain vigilant because of high tides, although no major flooding was reported and the EA said that the Norfolk Broads remained at risk. Felixstowe docks were closed and the rail service between Lowestoft and Norwich was suspended.

But for some the surge was a bonus. At nearby Gorleston beach, two dozen surfers were riding the waves. Some had come from as far away as Land's End, to enjoy the rare conditions. But, by early yesterday afternoon as the tide retreated, even they had given up and gone home.