LONDON – Thousands of people along the the eastern coast of England were told to evacuate their homes and move to higher ground Thursday ahead of a potentially devasting 10-foot wall of sea water predicted to slam the island nation Friday morning.
More than 10,000 homes and businesses are affected by the order, according to the British Environment Agency, which has issued seven severe flood warnings for people living on the Norfolk and Suffolk coast near Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.
Environment Secretary Hilary Benn warned of potentially historic flooding in the next 48 hours.
In anticipation of the surge the Thames Barrier, which protects London from flooding, was to be closed Thursday night to cope with water levels four feet higher than usual.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown convened an emergency meeting of officials Thursday afternoon to coordinate potential mass evacuations and rescue efforts.
Officials predict sea levels will surge, exceeding 10 feet above usual tidal levels as a result of intense storm-blowing winds in excess of 60 mph. These winds are expected to funnel a wall of water from the North Sea between 7-9 a.m. Friday, London time.
A "significant tidal surge" will cause some areas to see the highest tides since 1983.
"It will run down the east coast of the UK, around the Dover Strait and back up around Belgium," according to David Britton, an official with the Metro Office. "It will be comparable to the floods of 1953, which were caused by a storm surge."
The 1953 floods, which were more severe than the ones forecast for Friday, claimed the lives of 300 people in Britain and thousands in the Netherlands. Damage to British property ran to more than $12 billion in terms of today's money standards.
The floods would be worse if the surge arrived at high tide, Britton said. "The peak is happening just after low water. In 1953 the peak happened a couple of hours before high tide, so it was much worse. The low tide will mitigate the effects of the surge."
The Environment Agency said that residents in areas with a severe risk of flooding should evacuate and take measures to protect their property. The agency's worst case scenario predicts that 8,000 properties will be affected in the area around Great Yarmouth and 1,800 properties around Lowestoft.
"There is a danger to life and property," a spokeswoman said. "Residents will have to act — by leaving their houses or moving possessions to higher ground."
There also are two flood warnings, which will have a less serious effect on properties, and 11 flood watches, which will affect roads and low-lying areas.
Residents along the Kent coast, from north of the county to Sandwich and Deal, could also face localized flooding.
The Environment Agency asked the public to be vigilant and to watch weather and tide warnings.
The spokesman said: "We would urge anyone who receives a flood warning to check that their neighbors are aware of the warning.
"We will also have Environment Agency staff out warning people if the risk of flooding does get worse."
European forecasters also warned of high winds, extreme snowfall and avalanches. Dutch port authorities prepared to close Europe’s largest harbor in Rotterdam to defend against predicted storm surges as high as 13 feet and winds exceeding 60 mph.
Gusts of up to 78 mph were expected in Germany and Denmark, and "extreme" amounts of fresh snow were forecast on the northern fringe of the Alps.
Police were ordered on standby in the areas most likely to be affected, including Norfolk and Suffolk, to coordinate the emergency response, including evacuation if necessary.
Times of London, BBC and the Daily Mail contributed to this report.