WEATHER:

Europe's new coastal defenses appear to reduce destruction from 50-year storm

Wind and waves battered the northern European coastline last week in the worst gale in more than half a century. At the storm's peak, a wind gust of 142 mph was recorded just outside of Fort William in the Scottish Highlands.

Parts of Scotland, northern England, the Netherlands, southern Sweden and Germany experienced the worst tidal surge since the catastrophic storm of January 1953. That tempest left 307 London residents dead and 40,000 homeless. During the same 1953 gale, the North Sea storm surge killed about 1,800 people in the Netherlands.

Dubbed Windstorm Xaver by the Free University Berlin, last week's storm wreaked havoc across Europe. Scheduled train travel was halted in Scotland, Germany and Denmark when fallen trees and landslides blocked rail lines. Glasgow's central train station was evacuated after debris smashed through a glass roof.

A cliff in Hemsby, England, collapsed, causing houses to slide into the ocean below. In Rhyl, North Wales, elderly residents were evacuated from their homes in inflatable boats.

More than 29,000 customers lost electricity in Ireland when winds gusting up to 70 mph blew through communities in the northern and eastern parts of the country.

In Poland, three people died in the village of Poraj when a tree fell onto their car. Winds reached 85 mph throughout the northern part of the country. Firefighters responded to more than 1,500 emergency calls. Winds caused more than 400,000 customers to lose electricity.

Storm surges reach 20 feet

In Hamburg, Germany, water levels rose to 13 feet above the normal high tide level. Parts of the city center and port areas were flooded.

At its highest level, the morning of Dec. 6, the tidal surge measured 20 feet above sea level, according to a Hamburg official, the highest it has been since the early 1990s.

Fortunately for many Europeans, the last 60 years have seen vast improvements in tidal defenses. Last week, the Thames barrier was closed for two days to protect residents of low-lying areas around greater London and the Thames estuary.

At its highest, the storm surge caused a 6-foot-plus difference in water height between the downriver and upriver sides of the barrier. In Hull, according to a report on the Climate Central website, the level of the River Humber rose to a record high of 19 feet on the night of Dec. 5. Flooding was stemmed by a barrier that has been in place since 1980.

In the Netherlands, the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier, a complex of dams, sluices and dikes built to protect the large area of land around the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta, was closed off for the first time in six years.

Dutch authorities said they had issued the highest possible flood warning for four areas in the north of the country. In the southwestern province of Zeeland, officials reported that the North Sea had risen by 13 feet, the highest level since 1953.

Damage estimates lag

Estimates of the magnitude of losses generated by Xaver will be several days in coming. Insurance brokers, reinsurers and risk modeling firms say it is too early to speculate. A spokesman for Aviva, the United Kingdom's largest insurance company, said, "The impact is still being measured on the ground. We're assessing and monitoring areas affected."

According to Brian Owens, senior director of risk modeling firm Risk Management Solutions, better infrastructure defenses as well as the relatively brief duration of the surge events protected most developed regions from Xaver's impact. Owens was quoted in a report on the website Artemis.bm, which covers the alternative risk transfer, catastrophe bond and insurance linked security markets,

On Twitter, Swiss Re's natural catastrophe team leader, Andreas Schraft, said: "Too early for loss estimates."

With Xaver, the trend in severe weather across Europe seems to be continuing. In a Dec. 6 report in the Irish newspaper Independent.ie, Ray McGrath, of Met Eireann's research department, pointed out that "global warming" does not simply mean temperatures are going to go up. Trends in extreme weather of all kinds, he said, are expected to worsen.

According to figures compiled by the Irish Insurance Federation, since 2010, extreme weather conditions have cost Ireland more than €1billion ($1.37 billion) in property damage alone. Across Europe, the cost of damage from extreme weather events has risen by more than 60 percent in the last 30 years, according to a report by the European Academies Science Advisory Council released in November.

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