This article titled “East coast surge: homes fall into sea, waves rip at pier, wildlife struggles” was written by Patrick Barkham and Kevin Rawlinson, for The Guardian on Friday 6th December 2013 18.26 UTC
The telephone probably saved Ray Mooney’s life. His brother called just as he was rushing to the back door of his home. Mooney, 55, took the call, and the back of his immaculate wooden chalet fell into the tumultuous sea below.
Mooney’s house was one of five destroyed in Hemsby, Norfolk, by a storm surge higher in some places than the great flood of 1953, which devastated East Anglia and killed 307 people in the UK.
This year’s similarly lethal combination of onshore winds, high spring tides and a storm surge caused by a North Sea depression, did not cause such loss of life or property, chiefly because of defences erected after the 1953 floods and a well-executed evacuation plan.
But some were still left defenceless against the power of the sea that trashed a historic pier, flooded a newly-acquired nature reserve and devastated beach-side business along the Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire coastline.
Mooney’s neighbours, Steven and Jackie Connolly, were in the local pub when they heard the cliff was going. Drinkers formed a human chain to help them rescue their sofa, Christmas presents and three-month-old kittens before their home of seven years was swallowed by the sea.
“Suddenly we heard a shout ‘it’s going, it’s going’ and we watched our kitchen get ripped apart,” said Steven Connolly. “The whole house collapsed before our eyes. We’re devastated at what we’ve lost but at least me, Jackie and the kittens are safe.”
The houses at Hemsby were unusually affordable, mostly bought for less than £60,000 because of their proximity to sea. But many locals criticised the failure of the authorities to build the concrete defences that prop up much of this crumbling coastline. Instead, residents funded a DIY scheme in which concrete blocks were to be put on a 200m stretch of beach. Some blocks were placed there at 5.30pm on Thursday in a futile last-ditch attempt to stem the surge.
“Do you know what it’s like going to bed every night fearing what tomorrow brings?” said Hemsby resident Angela Lewis, 57. “It’s scary. How much longer have we got a home for? Will we have a home for Christmas? All we want is for someone to help us. People have nowhere to go. We can’t start again – we can’t afford to buy anywhere or rent anywhere.”
A local businessman has offered Mooney and the Connollys rent-free accommodation on a nearby chalet park but the homeless of Lowestoft, in Suffolk, are also looking for a new place to stay after their 27-bed hostel was closed by flood damage.
Emma Ratzer, the chief executive of the Access Community Trust who runs the hostel, said that an estimated £50,000-worth of damage to the ground floor meant it would be closed over Christmas.
“The people on the ground floor have lost all their belongings too, so we have been out buying them new socks, pants and everything,” she said. “The first thing we need to do is buy 27 more beds.”
The floods also sank the last surviving end-of-the-pier show in Britain. Waves ripped holes in historic Cromer Pier and pulled bench seating in the Pavilion theatre into the sea, forcing the cancellation of the pier’s Christmas show – until council officials declare the pier safe again.
“There’s probably a reason why people don’t have theatres on the end of piers,” said general manager Rebecca Wass. “But we’re not giving up yet. The show will hopefully go on in some capacity.” An alternative venue in Holt is being lined up.
The coast was littered with the remains of beach huts and beach cafes, with boats thrown onto the quay at Blakeney and flooded shops in Wells-next-the-Sea.
Even the fish couldn’t escape: the stricken residents including sharks and a turtle from the sea-damaged Sea Life Sanctuary in Hunstanton were being rescued and transferred to another centre in Dorset.
Wildlife has also been hit by the storm. Before it struck, there were 430 seals and pups on Horsey beach; yesterday, volunteers counted just 177. At Cley, in North Norfolk, a new nature reserve just purchased by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust was flooded, a bird hide had disappeared and holes punched in the shingle sea bank threaten the whole of the marshes.
While Brandon Lewis, Tory MP for Great Yarmouth, whose constituency includes the Hemsby area, pledged to help residents fight for more funds for coastal defence, some people were remarkably phlegmatic about the storm.
“We must have learnt our lesson from Canute – we’re not going to stop the sea,” said Robin Adams, standing in the wooden frame of all that remained of his house at Hemsby.
Despite contemplating a life without a home, Mooney was similarly calm. “Mother nature, you can’t have a go,” he said. “You can shout as much as you want but it will have it’s way. It’s not right or wrong, it just happens. Sometimes it will do a beautiful thing, sometimes it’s just cruel.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010