LONDON (Reuters) - Large parts of the Norfolk and Kent coasts are at risk of severe flooding from a tidal surge in the North Sea, the government and environment agencies warned on Thursday.
Weather experts invoked images of the major floods of 1953 that hit eastern England and the Netherlands, and said the Dutch and German coasts were again also at high risk from the storm surge coupled with spring tides and low pressure.
"A tidal surge of up to three metres is making its way down the North Sea which could coincide with high tides," Environment Secretary Hilary Benn told the House of Commons.
A special COBRA Cabinet Office meeting was held by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to coordinate the emergency response.
"COBRA has just met. All the arrangements that can be put in place are being put in place," John Healey, minister of state for local communities, told reporters as he emerged from the meeting.
"COBRA will be on full alert throughout the night, and the prime minister will be keeping in close touch and keeping on top of things," he added.
The Environment Agency issued seven severe flood warnings around Great Yarmouth in East Anglia for the surge which is expected to peak at between around 7 a.m. on Friday.
It said 8,000 properties in Great Yarmouth and 1,800 in Lowestoft were at risk on its worst case forecast.
The Thames Barrier would be closed from 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, the agency said.
"We are gravely concerned about the scope for serious flooding," an Environment Agency spokesman told BBC Radio.
Flood warnings were also in place in Yorkshire and Kent.
Benn said police were on standby in areas likely to be affected to coordinate the response to any flooding, including evacuation if needed.
"There is a risk of flood defences being overtopped on the coast and in tidal rivers especially in East Anglia, particularly the Norfolk Broads, the coast south of Great Yarmouth, including Lowestoft, and areas south of this as far as the coast of Kent," he said.
The Met Office said north-westerly winds exceeding 50 mph were coinciding with low pressure and high tides to produce the exceptional conditions.
"The height of the surge we are expecting on Friday morning happens around once every 20 years or so," said Stewart Wortley, Head of Storm Tide Forecasting at the Met Office.
East Anglia last suffered coastal flooding in 1993 and 1978, the Environment Agency said.
A severe North Sea flood in 1953 killed around 300 on the English east coast and more than 1,800 in the Netherlands.
Reporting by Tim Castle, editing by Jeremy Lovell