In a recent interview with Deutsche Welle, neuroscientist Stephen Emmott talked about his play Ten Billion (about which, I will write soon) and also mentioned some of the notable weather events of the summer, including the floods in Manila.
…60 percent of Manila is currently under water. I mean, can you imagine? It’s a capital city of a very populous country – the Philippines. Can you imagine if 60 percent of London were under water, or 60 percent of Washington, D.C.? It’s just unimaginable.
It’s not unimaginable, though. If you have access to history books or the internet, and take an interest in these matters, you will know that Paris had very widespread flooding in 1910 (which I blogged about, last year.) As for the Phillipines, according to the journal Engineering News (January-June, 1913) Baguio City had a record 46 inches of rain over 24 hours in July 1911, an event which caused colossal landslides, destroyed roads and at least one bridge and caused the city to be entirely cut off from the outside world for eight days.
The trouble is, of course, there was no television and no internet in those times. Were the same events to have happened in summer 2012, there can be no doubt that people like Professor Emmott would make quick use of them in interviews to support the case that we’re currently heading for immanent climate doom. But go back in history, and you will find similar or worse events almost wherever you look.
Exactly a hundred years ago it was the turn of Norwich in England, the city where I grew up, to experience catastrophic flooding.
In Norfolk it had rained continuously for two days (Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th August 1912) and after a break for the Sabbath, the storm resumed in earnest on Monday 26th August, 7 inches of rainfall being measured over 30 hours, and many places ending up with five times the monthly average. Powerful winds caused havoc, rivers burst their banks across East Anglia, 40 bridges were destroyed, railways were blocked and the harvest was lost.
After the storm, the river Wensum burst its banks and flood water began to surge into low-lying districts of the city, forcing residents to be evacuated by boat. Here are some newspaper accounts from the time.
London 27th August. Owing to the floods, Norwich resembles an island city. The railways and telegraphs are interrupted. The flood is the greatest for a quarter of a century. Harvest fields are submerged. Many houses in Huntingdon are flooded, and the inhabitants of parts of Leicester are living in the upper stories, the lower stories being invaded by water. There have been heavy losses of stock in the Midlands.
London 28th August. Telegrams dated Norwich, Monday, arrived in London (ninety-eight miles distant) last night. They conveyed the information that it had rained incessantly for seventeen hours, and there were several feet of water in many of the streets, on which boats were plying. Hundreds of people had quitted their houses and taken refuge in the schools on the higher levels, where food was being conveyed to them. Business was at a standstill in the city. The rainfall for twelve hours was 6.32 inches, and it was still raining. The rising waters yesterday stopped the majority of the dynamos on which the electric lighting system is dependent, and the city was plunged into darkness. The flood-waters have washed away a portion of the high mound on which the old Norman castle stands, near the centre of the city. King’s Lynn and the East Coast resorts, Cromer, Sheringham, and Mundesley, are still isolated. A goods train fell through a viaduct which had collapsed near Fakenham, twenty-four miles north-west of Norwich. Several county railway bridges have been destroyed. Further floods are reported in Warwickshire. In the poorer quarters of Norwich yesterday the flood waters reached a depth of thirteen feet. The city is threatened with a shortage of water for domestic purposes, the waterworks pumping station being flooded and the machinery useless. The high-level reservoir contains only sufficient water for two days’ supply.
London, Aug 31. The damage in the city of Norwich is estimated at £100,000. The trees are infested with rats, which are taking refuge from the flood. The waters receding have left the flood gauge again visible. It has been hidden for the first time since 1614.
As the above newspaper accounts have mentioned, the floods were not limited to Norwich – they affected many areas in East Anglia and the Midlands. However, Norwich appears to have been hardest hit; four people drowned there, including a local hero – George Brodie, a fish porter – who rescued others before losing his own life.
Not far from where I was born is Cringleford Mill, situated on the River Yare, south of Norwich. During the great flood of 1912, the water rose to what has been described as unprecedented levels, inundating both the mill itself and the mill house and requiring the owner’s daughter to be rescued by boat from a first-floor window. About a mile upstream, there is an area of land, very close to the river and also perhaps threatened by the rising waters, that was then part of the Earlham Hall Estate but which later became a golf course and after that the site for a university campus, where in the 1970s a unit was formed to study the changing climate.
That university is, of course, the University of East Anglia or UEA, and the unit is the Climatic Research Unit, or CRU.