The Ferryman recount’s the words of the dying boy abandoned by the river in Britten’s church parable Curlew River. The work was premiered in 1964 in Orford Church, Suffolk, on the East Anglian coast.
Eleven years earlier, on the night of 31st January 1953, Suffolk and the whole of East Anglia had suffered one of the worst floods in living memory, and one of the biggest environmental disasters ever to have occurred in the UK.
During the evening, freak winds and a rising tide pushed the sea to dangerous levels. Inadequate flood defences were breached by huge waves, and coastal towns along the English east coast from Lincolnshire, through Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex to Kent were devastated as sea water rushed into the streets. There were 1200 breaches of sea defences along 1000 miles of coastline. 24,000 homes were flooded, and 307 people were drowned. 160,000 acres of farmland were flooded, and 46,000 livestock were lost.
The inquiry after the disaster concluded that the floods in 1953 were caused by a 'storm surge.' This was a freak of nature, and statistically should only happen once every 250 years. A web site about the tragedy says the following: "Storm surges are a problem associated with hurricanes. Many people consider the strong winds to be the main feature of such a storm, but the associated rise in sea level and heavy rainfall are responsible for most of the deaths associated with hurricanes."
The findings of the analysis is available on the Environment Agency web site, where there is also information on managing flood risk. To avoid a repetition millions of pounds have since been spent on protective measures. Sea defences have been re-engineered to the extent that the sea would need to rise six feet above the 1953 levels to flood the same areas. Massive artificial reefs of imported stone have been built to diffuse the force of waves coming off the North Sea. (There is no natural rock in East Anglia, which is the reason why it is so low lying).
One of the main findings of the inquiry was that there was a lack of communication between the UK Meteorological Office and National River Authority, and this resulted in inadequate warnings. Gales were predicted, but the deepening of the low pressure and the severity of the strengthening winds was not forecast. Today all information on storms and floods is co-ordinated by a single body, the Meteorological Office. An advance warning system is in place to predict high tides on the East Coast. The Environment Agency provides three level of flood warnings – yellow when flooding is possible, amber when flooding is likely, and red means serious flooding probable. These flood warnings are updated on their web site every 15 minutes. I live in East Anglia, and this warning system is rigorously enforced, and has a high profile in the media.
But the fact remains that despite massive expenditure and Herculean efforts it is financially, and practically, impossible to protect every mile of the East Anglian coast adequately. Less serious breaches of the sea defences occurred in 1978, 1996, and 2000. Because of the rise in sea levels caused by global warming alternative strategies are now under debate. One of these is controlled retreat. This means allowing the sea to flood some low lying areas naturally, rather than trying to protect them artificially.
Our tenure on earth is finite. East Anglia 1953 and New Orleans 2005 remind us that the force of nature is infinite. At the end of Curlew River the cast join the boy’s mother praying at his graveside.
Go your way in peace, mother.
The dead shall rise again,
And in that blessed day,
We shall meet in heav’n
Now take an overgrown path to
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