Norfolk fears repeat of 1953 flood disaster

Angry villagers say that replacing sirens with radio and text warnings could threaten lives

Coastal communities haunted by memories of catastrophic floods that claimed more than 300 lives in the UK say that controversial plans to scrap Norfolk's flood sirens and replace them with warnings by phone message and text could put lives at risk.

The Environment Agency and police claim outdated sirens could cause "confusion and panic" during evacuation. But anxious villagers believe the new system, under which the agency warns residents by phone, email and local radio, is too confusing for the elderly, many of whom live in the most at-risk areas.

Norman Lamb, North Norfolk's Liberal Democrat MP, said: "It is an extremely emotional subject in Norfolk because of those that lost their lives in 1953. The decision to stop using sirens comes at a time when the threat [of flooding] is very clearly increasing. Sea levels are rising. There is a greater risk of storms because of global warming. At the same time sea defences are being downgraded.

"Police say they will knock door-to-door in the event of a threat. But we have remote communities dotted along the coast. There is no way you could deploy a police force along that coastline at the same time in the dead of night and in a raging storm."

He has now called a "last-ditch" meeting for 23 February, amid claims local residents have been denied proper consultation, in a bid to reverse the decision.

Norfolk has 57 sirens adapted from those originally erected during the second world war. While the county council is responsible for their upkeep, the agency and police have said they do not want to use them, preferring more modern warning systems. So the county council is unwilling to maintain them.

Sybil Melton, chair of Snettisham parish council, said: "We weren't listened to. Speak to anyone - they desperately want them to be kept. The sirens are something people take notice of."

Norfolk county councillor David Callaby said: "Many have memories of 1953. This is a very, very emotive issue. The Environment Agency and police say they will let people know by phone. But when you have a storm, what's the first thing to blow down? The phone cables. And mobile reception is very patchy."

The 1953 floods, believed to be the UK's worst national peacetime disaster, were caused by a storm surge. In total, 307 people in the UK were killed, more than 80 of them in Norfolk, and almost 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of eastern England were flooded. Emergency plans could not be implemented because phone lines were blown down. In the Netherlands, 1,800 people drowned.

Dr Marie Strong, a volunteer flood warden in Wells-next-the-Sea, said the whole eastern coast was affected, with 36 sirens in Essex also at risk. "When the siren sounds, it is - as one person told me - a signal to run like hell," she said.

"These phone calls - well, people just don't comprehend them. Especially the elderly, who make up many who live in these threatened areas. Who takes a phone with them to bed?

"One of our elderly neighbours got a message that said: 'Move your pets and valuables to a safer area. Prepare to evacuate. Move upstairs.' She lives in an ancient little bungalow. Another woman had an elderly aunt who was so worried about the messages - and they are always changing - that her niece assured her: 'Don't worry. I'll hear the siren, auntie, and I'll come and make sure you're all right.' What of these people?"

Henry Bellingham, Conservative MP for North West Norfolk, said: "The point about sirens is that they may be old-fashioned and archaic in this modern age, but if they were removed I think there would be a possibility - albeit quite a remote one - of some people missing out on a warning."


Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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