'I will never forget' - ITV News Anglia presenter David Whiteley's memories of 2013 storm surge

David Whiteley filming on Hemsby beach following the destructive storm surge of 2013. Credit: David Whiteley

In December 2013, the East Anglian coast endured its most destructive flooding for more than half a century, and ITV News Anglia presenter DAVID WHITELEY was on the scene to see it at first-hand. Here, he recounts his memories of that night: when the waters rose, homes tumbled into the sea - and a community pulled together.

When my producer told me in December 2013 we were to film a documentary about coastal erosion in the north Norfolk village of Hemsby, it sounded like a straight-forward job.

Our task: film a piece with a couple who live on the Marrams and are constantly worried about the rate of erosion, and find out about efforts to raise money for much-needed sea defences.

Nothing could have made that case better than the scenes of the next 24 hours.

I remember the air that morning was still. In fact, the remnants of fog still clung to the dunes. The thought of some significant weather event - a storm surge? - seemed distant.

We got to it; filming with our interviewees Steve and Jackie Connelly, gathering shots, capturing their thoughts and their fears of literally living on the edge.

The couple had lived there for 10 years and by then, their house was almost next in the firing line. The property next door had been condemned and the owner had moved out.

The afternoon brought a dramatic change to the weather. The wind increased and the tide began to push in.

"Those who live there, as well as the dedicated lifeboat crew, have shown true grit these past few years," writes David Whiteley. Credit: David Whiteley

Hemsby is a special place, with a vast stretch of glorious sandy beach.

But by now, the earlier distant benign waters of the North Sea were beginning to move up the beach and appeared a little more menacing.

When we filmed a piece to camera outside Steve and Jackie’s house, atop the dune, the wind was howling and we struggled to be heard over the increasing noise.

By then, we called it a day on exterior filming and headed inside the local pub, The Lacon Arms. They were holding a fundraising event for sea defences. The irony of holding such an event, on this fateful day, has not been lost on me over the years.

Tucked away inside, with the warmth of the pub, it was very easy to forget the storm now in full effect outside.

But Steve and Jackie couldn’t forget. How could they? Their home was very much in jeopardy. They decided to check on their house and we went with them, camera rolling as we advanced along the Marrams.

Things had changed a lot! The wind was strong and the waves were crashing against the soft sand.

The old lifeboat station was being eaten away by the water. Bit by bit, the concrete structure was being lost.

A phone cable, still attached to the building, strained. It bowed like a fishing rod with a large catch on the end.

Erosion had been eating away at the sandy dunes before 2013, but in one night metres of coastline were lost. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The lifeboat crew kept people back from the dangers and were busily checking on properties along the road.

The walk along the road, just a few hundred yards, felt long. We felt Jackie and Steve’s anxiety as they went up to their house. They were just slightly ahead of us when the realisation of the situation hit.

“Stop, stop!” I said to the cameraman, just behind me. They had got to the front door, only to see the back of the house had gone, fallen away with the undermining of the cliff.

Jackie broke down: this was their home.

We were all in shock. But for Steve and Jackie this was devastating. What next?

A plan was formulated to get as much of their furniture and belongings out as possible.

People swung into action; a human chain formed. Others from the village, strangers to Steve and Jackie, began grabbing what they could and piled it into pickup trucks.

Time was of the essence. It was also perilous. We had just filmed the next-door house being swept away. As we looked over the edge, it looked like a cupboard being folded by the sea.

Hard to believe it was someone’s home.

Back at Steve and Jackie’s, there was a gut-wrenching cracking noise from deep within the house. It was game over.

“Out, out, everyone out!” came the shout from one of the good Samaritans helping inside. We looked in to get the final shots. The floor had split, the wooden floor was splintering and it wouldn’t be long before gravity took over.

That was it. Everyone’s safety was paramount and we left.

Steve and Jackie were taken in by other local people and we left Hemsby for the night.

It was the early hours. I went back to base for a few hours’ sleep, but didn’t really sleep, still processing the devastation of the previous day.

Dawn breaking at Hemsby after the most destructive flooding for 60 years. Credit: David Whiteley

At first light we returned to the scene. It really felt like the calm after the storm. The sunrise was stunning and the power of the waves was subsiding.

But the devastation of the previous night was all too raw.

Steve and Jackie’s house had gone over the cliff. It was wrecked, along with four other homes lost to the storm surge.

Thankfully, Steve and Jackie did receive insurance and were able to move away - and who can blame them?

Over the last decade I have returned several times to Hemsby, to continue documenting the plight of the Marrams and the fight to get sea defences built.

Those who live along there, as well as the dedicated lifeboat crew, have shown true grit these past few years.

I am in constant awe and admiration for their determination not to quit, even when faced with such adversity.

And I will never forget the night of 5 December 2013.

Listen to our reporter Rob Setchell reporting on Hemsby in the latest What You Need To Know podcast from ITV News