Thousands Moved From English Coast as Thames Barrier Closed

By Rodney Jefferson and Nicholas Brautlecht | December 6, 2013

Thousands of people were moved from English coastal areas last night and the River Thames flood barrier protecting London was closed after warnings of the worst tidal surge in 60 years.

The Environment Agency said people were at risk of being swept into the sea and were removed from high-risk areas in places such as Great Yarmouth on the east coast. As of 9:59 a.m. London time, 140 flood warnings had been issued for the U.K., the agency said on its website. Seven severe flood warnings, the highest threat level, out of 27 were issued for the Anglian region, the most easterly in England.

The U.K. government today called a meeting on the storm, which prompted authorities to lower the flood barrier in the eastern port of Hull, holding back a 5.8-meter (19 feet) tidal surge, the highest on record, as well as the Thames Barrier, which has been protecting the capital since 1982. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told Sky News television the government plans to spend “a couple of million of pounds around flood defenses” as part of an infrastructure project.

“In some areas, sea levels could be higher than those during the devastating floods of 1953,” the Environment Agency said on its website. “However, flood defenses built since then mean that many parts of the country are much better protected.”

Power Cuts

The storm hit Scotland yesterday, paralyzing the rail network before heading south and across the North Sea to the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. Winds reached 142 miles an hour on mountain peaks while heavy rain battered morning commuters. A truck driver died after his vehicle was blown on top of two cars west of Edinburgh, the BBC reported.

Fallen trees blocked roads and rail lines, and authorities urged all high-sided vehicles to avoid traveling or to pull over until the storm subsided. In Nottinghamshire in central England, a man died after being struck by a tree.

More than 100,000 properties throughout the U.K. were hit with power cuts, the Press Association reported.

The Association of British Insurers said it is too early to know the extent of the damage caused, while insurers including Aviva Plc, the U.K.’s second largest, said their claims teams are on standby for policyholders affected.

Insurance Claims

The last windstorms to hit Europe in late October, which battered homes and felled trees from England to the Baltic Sea, were estimated by Willis Re to have cost the insurance industry up to 1.3 billion euros ($1.7 billion).

“Damage caused by bad weather can be traumatic and disruptive, but unexpected events like this are exactly what insurance is for,” Aidan Kerr, head of property at the ABI said in a statement. “Storm damage is covered as standard in home insurance policies and people affected should contact their insurer to get their claim moving.”

Germany’s largest port, Hamburg, saw the heaviest floods in 37 years as water levels rose 4 meters above the medium high- tide level early this morning, according to the city’s interior ministry.

Ship traffic at the port was halted throughout the night and police cordoned off the streets of the harbor area to prevent people and cars getting swept away. A total of 38 flood gates were closed, preventing more serious damage, spokesman Thomas Butter said. No casualties were reported.

River Elbe

Hamburg’s citizens still bear the scars of the North Sea Flood of 1962, which claimed more than 300 lives and devastated large parts of the city.

The port, located on the River Elbe, is bracing for another smaller storm surge to hit tonight, with water levels expected to rise 2.5 meters above the medium high-tide level, said Butter.

The low pressure system, dubbed Xaver, reached hurricane force with wind speeds of more than 140 kilometers (87 miles) an hour, according to the German Weather Service. Xaver traversed southern parts of the North Sea before reaching land on the northern German and Danish coast yesterday afternoon.

The airport in Hamburg canceled about 80 takeoffs and landings this morning after officials closed the terminal yesterday.

Deutsche Bahn AG canceled its long distance trains via the Northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, including cross-border connections to Denmark, while it also stopped the Hanover-Bremen service in the state of Lower Saxony, according to its website.

Kiel Canal

Extreme flooding continued to disrupt traffic on the Kiel Canal, the world’s busiest artificial waterway, the Brunsbuettel-based branch of federal waterways and shipping administration WSV said on its website this morning. While the authority reopened the southern locks at Brunsbuettel to enable ships to leave the canal, locks in the north at Kiel Holtenau will stay shut, it said. The canal links the North Sea with the Baltic Sea through the state of Schleswig-Holstein.

Commuter traffic in Berlin and Potsdam was disrupted because of storm damage along the train tracks, Deutsche Bahn’s S-Bahn Berlin GmbH said on its Twitter account. The German capital saw the first heavy snowfalls of the winter, with groups of tourists taking shelter from the snowfall in underground stations at Pariser Platz, leaving the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate deserted for most of the morning.

Berlin’s fire fighters went on about 150 weather-related missions between 7 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. local time, the city’s brigade said on its website. Heavy winds broke the 13-meter Christmas tree in front of the office of Germany’s federal president, the 18th-century Schloss Bellevue, according to the Berliner Morgenpost.

Maeslantkering Barrier

The sea level near the Dutch city of Vlissingen in the southwestern province of Zeeland reached the highest level since 1953, when a flood killed more than 1,800 people, the Scheldestromen Water Board said in a statement on its website.

Authorities in Rotterdam decided to keep the Maeslantkering, a surge barrier which protects the Port of Rotterdam, open though the water level will be closely monitored for the next few hours, Hanneke Derksen, a spokeswoman of Ministry of Infrastructure of South Holland province, said by phone.

A 72-year-old woman in Denmark died after the van she was traveling in was blown off the road, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported, citing local media.

In Poland, power supply was cut to as much as 400,000 households with wind reaching 135 kilometers an hour in some parts. Three people died when a tree fell on a car in the northern part of the country, Polish Press Agency said, citing data from the Ministry of Administration and Digitization. LOT Polish Airlines SA canceled several flights, while firefighters intervened over 1,500 times since midnight, the carrier said.

(With assistance from John Simpson in Toronto, Fred Pals in Amsterdam and Sarah Jones in London. Editors: Simone Meier, Edward Evans)

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