LONDON – The sand – about 65 million cubic feet of it – was brought in last summer to protect the coastal villages of Walcott and Bacton from the devastating floods that regularly hit eastern England.
When a strong storm swept across the region over the weekend, the water was kept in check. The sand, not so much.
As the wind subsided and the rain subsided, residents found cars surrounded by drifting brown snow. Roads and road markings were covered with a beige blanket. Objects picked up by winds of 70 mph had been tossed from one backyard to another before being buried.
But many said it could have been worse.
“We have tons of sand, but we prefer sandcastles to flooded carpets,” said Sheila Mason, a Walcott resident whose fence was damaged and the garden covered in sand.
The strong winds damaged power lines, destroyed crops and sank ships. There were no reports of victims. However, the cleanup is expected to take several days and authorities said it would take longer to fully assess the damage.
The storms come as steady beach erosion and the rise in sea levels caused by climate change now threaten hundreds of kilometers of coastline along the eastern edge of England.
The communities of Walcott and Bacton, each with less than 2,000 residents, are now beginning to experience what climatologists say it is becoming increasingly common for residents of low-lying coastal areas. Around 150 million people worldwide currently live on land that could be below the flood line by 2050.
In Europe, coastal communities have tried to combat erosion by building dykes, adding infrastructure or paving the boardwalks with sand, as Norfolk has done.
To protect tens of millions of people threatened by the rising waters of the North Sea, scientists have suggested enclosing the sea by building two dams – one stretching about 300 miles from the Scottish coast to Norway and the other, about 100 Miles long, rising between northern France and southeast England.
However, this proposal is far from a reality.
In the meantime, the communities are doing everything they can to protect themselves and the vital infrastructure.
In Norfolk, the Bacton Gas Terminal, which provides a third of the UK’s gas supply, is increasingly at risk of coastal erosion. It is now precariously on a cliff above the sea.
The decision to inject sand over three miles of coast last summer was in large part due to a need to protect the facility. It was hoped that the sand would also help protect local communities from increasingly severe floods, such as in 2013 when tides destroyed homes and submerged entire neighborhoods.
“If the program hadn’t been implemented, it would undoubtedly have exceeded the defenses and the ensuing flooding,” Rob Goodliffe, coastal manager at North Norfolk District Council, said in a statement on the storms.
However, some residents say the damage from the sandstorm isn’t as bad as the flooding it is designed to prevent.
“There’s a feeling within the community that, ‘Oh, this is going to happen again,'” said Mark Wright, a community organizer better known locally as Bell. “But I would bring the sand over the water every day, because without the sand we would be under water today.”