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Sea defences questioned after storm wreaks havoc on England’s east coast

Police officers line the beach where five houses fell into the sea during a storm surge in Hemsby, eastern England, December 6, 2013.


Steve Connolly stood in front of what's left of his home in Hemsby, England, trying to come to grips with the loss.

"I have no idea what we'll do," Mr. Connolly said Sunday as he picked through what little remained of the house he had shared with his wife Jackie for seven years. "It's just frightening."

The Connolly's home was among five along Hemsby's beach-front that were washed away last Thursday when a storm packing hurricane-force gusts of wind ripped across Britain. The storm caused record sea levels and the worst tidal surges in 60 years. Roughly 1,400 homes were flooded and 15,000 people had to be evacuated. Hundreds of homes in Scotland were still without power Sunday and dozens of houses in Boston, in eastern England, remained under water.

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As people began to returning to their property over the weekend, many questioned the country's sea defences and preparedness. Officials with the government's Environment Agency insisted that walls and barriers put in after a similar storm in 1953, which killed 326 people, worked effectively and saved about 800,000 homes. And they praised the actions of emergency crews before and after the storm. "Over the last three days we issued an unprecedented number of severe flood warnings," said the agency's chief executive Paul Leinster. "These early warnings gave emergency services, homes and businesses vital time to prepare."

But in Hemsby, a resort town about 10 kilometres north of Great Yarmouth, many townsfolk said they have been asking the government for years to build a sea wall along the beach. Decades of erosion has eaten away dozens of properties sitting atop cliffs that overlook the sea. There used to be two additional rows of housing along the cliff, but they vanished years ago with the advancing sea. More than 70 bungalows and 150 metres of sand dunes have been lost in the last 20 years. On Thursday alone about 9 metres of cliff side was washed away, bringing the sea ever closer to the many shops and businesses that run along the beach front.

"It's an outrage that we can't get any help here," said Ann Wilkinson, who has lived in the area for 40 years and is part of a group of local volunteers called Save Hemsby Coastline that's trying to raise money for a sea wall. On Sunday she and other volunteers fanned out across the beach asking people for donations. Later they gathered in the corner of the local pub, offering T-shirts and mugs for sale. Ms. Wilkinson said the government has turned down requests for sea defences because the beach is privately-owned. The owner, the Geoffrey Watling Trust, contributed some money toward a limited defence measure but that was swept away in last week's storm. Now the community needs to raise about £130,000, or $225,000, to build a concrete sea wall.

Most of the erosion is man-made, said local activist Joyce Phelan. She pointed to decades of offshore dredge for sand, which is used in the construction industry or sold to replenish beaches elsewhere in Europe, and construction of an outer harbour in nearby Great Yarmouth, which have altered water currents and increased the power of waves.

Ironically Save Hemsby Coastline was having a meeting in the pub last Thursday when the storm hit. They rushed out to help Mr. Connolly and others salvage what they could as their homes slid down the dunes.

"We didn't get much out," said Mr. Connolly who has no house insurance and no job. He had put the house up for sale months ago, hoping to move to Yorkshire and find work. The "For Sale" sign was still up on Sunday, standing near the only remaining wall. He paid £59,000 for the two-bedroom bungalow in 2006. Now all he'll get is 6,000 from the government to cover demolition.

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More


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