Yet on the night of 4 February 1953, a huge storm surge struck the east coast. In places the sea came 2 miles inland. 307 people were killed, including many families who died in their homes.
There was no warning and it was Britain’s worst peacetime disaster.
One of the most famous rescues was of a Miss Fowler, aged 84, of Canvey Island, Essex, with her 82 year old brother. You can see a photo of them here but they had to spend nearly 4 days without food, light or heat before help finally arrived.
Today, this is the situation we most fear at Age UK: frail older people marooned in flooded homes, accidentally overlooked and left to suffer alone. However, so far it seems that vulnerable older people have been identified and offered the emergency relief they need, and in a timely fashion. Thank goodness.
This is partly a legacy of 1953, when the lack of warning meant there was no chance to escape. Afterwards the Met Office established a service known today as the Flood Forecasting Centre and run jointly with the Environment Agency. The Centre issues the ‘flood warnings’ we see on the television. This winter, people whose homes have been flooded have not always had as much notice as they would have liked, but they have received at least some. Modern communications have helped too and lives have surely been saved as a result.
That’s not all that has changed for the better: 5 years ago a Help the Aged research project found a lack of shared understanding among the emergency services of the needs of vulnerable older people caught up in natural disasters like floods. Today, although efforts to prevent and tackle flooding may be more successful in some areas than others, the key public services now mostly work together much better than before, including in their efforts to safeguard those at greatest risk.
However, these improvements are unlikely to be of much consolation if your home is standing in filthy water and you fear it may be many months before you can live there again.
For the most part, local Age UKs in the affected areas are not part of the emergency response because this is not what they are geared up to do. We have made available some exceptional grants so they can continue to provide the regular services that many older people rely on, but it may be that their biggest contribution will be made only after the water recedes and the long and difficult process of recovery gets underway. Then, along with other community groups and voluntary organisations, by offering information and advice, friendship and practical and emotional support they will help many older people to carry on. This is all the more important because we know that older people who are badly affected by the floods are likely to find it particularly hard to cope with a protracted period out of their homes.
How can we help in the meantime? Only a minority of localities are actually flooded but much of the country is experiencing wild weather and all the problems this brings. As Sonia Mangan, chief executive of Age UK South Lakeland says, ‘The wind rattling through the rafters raises anxiety for anyone but especially for those who are alone or who maybe do not have the physical or emotional resilience to work out what to do about fallen fences, trees and slates. Our message is if in doubt – give us a shout.’
That must be true for all of us as individuals too. Being a good neighbour and friend and checking that older people are ok can make a big difference, especially for those living alone. This is likely to be all the more appreciated if the power is knocked out, or if there is disruption to roads, meaning services like meals on wheels can’t get through.
And let’s all hope the weather improves soon.