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The flooding around Foulness in Kent forces a herd of cattle in and around an old abandoned farm. February 2, 1953.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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Residents of Canvey Island, Essex, are rescued from their home during the floods. February 2, 1953.Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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Residents of Canvey Island, Essex, are rescued by boat near a flooded car. February 1953.Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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Sea walls appear to have been breached at Jaywick. February 3, 1953. Central Press/Getty Images
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Two men in a boat search for stranded residents on their way through the gate of a house in New Road, Canvey Island. February 1953.Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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Accompanied by Sir Francis Whitmore, Lord Lieutenant of Essex, Queen Elizabeth II visits an area of Essex affected by flooding. Boards have been laid down to prevent her from getting her feet wet. February 13, 1953.William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images
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A man observes the damage in Kruiningen, the Netherlands, where 1,836 people fell victim to the flood. February 13, 1953.Co Zeylemaker/AFP/Getty Images
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Youngster salvaging a doll after floods in Whitstable, Kent. February 4, 1953.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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The Lord Nelson public house on the outskirts of Sittingbourne, Kent, surrounded by floodwater some ten feet deep. February 3, 1953.Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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Debris at the edges of floodwater on Canvey Island. February 21, 1953. Raymond Kleboe/Picture Post/Getty Images
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A group of people gather around hosepipes gushing out water from flooded homes and streets in Whitstable, Kent. February 5, 1953.Terry Fincher/Keystone/Getty Images
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People delivering sandbags and blankets to stricken houses during flooding on Canvey Island. February 21, 1953.Raymond Kleboe/Picture Post/Getty Images
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Queen Elizabeth II visits a flood site. February 13, 1953.Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Floodwater outside a cafe on Canvey Island. February 21, 1953.Raymond Kleboe/Picture Post/Getty Images
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Residents trying to salvage possessions from houses surrounded by floodwater on Canvey Island. February 21, 1953.Raymond Kleboe/Picture Post/Getty Images
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Two men walk through floodwater toward a bungalow on Canvey Island. February 21, 1953.Raymond Kleboe/Picture Post/Getty Images
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An aerial shot from a U.S. Army helicopter of the island of Goeree-Overflakkee in the Netherlands gives a hint of the tremendous damage wrought by the flood. February 1953.Agency for International Development/NARA/Wikmedia Commons
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Dike breakthrough in Den Bommel, South Holland, the Netherlands, as a result of the flood. February 3, 1953.Beeldbank/Wikimedia Commons
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Ruined houses in the Netherlands during the February 1953 flood. Photographed during a visit by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands to the area.Wikimedia Commons
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A man named Nigel Parkinson tests his new flood warning siren in the Norfolk village of Salthouse. November 7, 1953.Maurice Ambler/Picture Post/Getty Images
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Two men fortify the wooden wall around the Norfolk village of Salthouse. November 7, 1953.Maurice Ambler/Picture Post/Getty Images
The Real “Storm Of The Century”: Photos From The North Sea Flood Of 1953
On February 1, 1953, an unlikely hero saved 27 lives in the Norfolk, England resort of Hunstanton following the North Sea flood, one of the region's worst natural disasters of the 20th century.
U.S. Airman Reis Leming, 22, was at the nearby Sculthorpe air base when he heard about the disaster. Although he couldn't swim, Leming left the base and risked his own life to venture into icy North Sea water more than a dozen feet above mean sea level — the result of high tides, hurricane-force winds, and waves reaching 16 feet and toppling defenses weakened by World War II.
About 100 miles away in the seaside town of Jaywick, 13-year-old Harry Francis was struggling to find higher ground with his family in their bungalow. "The first thing I remember was my arm falling out of my bed into freezing cold water, being told to get up quick and get dressed," he told the BBC in 2013.
His parents smashed a hole in the ceiling so the family could crawl out and wait to be rescued in the loft space above. "That's when we realized how bad it was," Francis continued. "The water was only a couple of inches below the ceiling. We all just sat on rafters."
Flooding forced 30,000 people like the Francis family to flee their homes. When the clouds parted, the picture was bleak indeed, according to Alexander Hall, writing in Arcadia:
"In England there were 1,200 breaches of sea defenses, 140,000 acres of land were flooded, 32,000 people were evacuated, 24,000 properties were damaged, 46,000 livestock were killed, and 307 people died. In the Netherlands, approximately 100,000 people were evacuated, 340,000 acres were flooded, 47,300 buildings were damaged, 30,000 livestock were killed, and 1,836 lives were lost."
Among the 307 dead in the U.K were the teenage Harry Francis' neighbors: "Out of the back of our bungalow we were calling to a family and this family were calling back to us. And then they stopped calling and we thought they had been rescued. But they hadn't. They had all drowned."
Following airman Leming's noble efforts to beat back the death toll, the people of Hunstanton never forgot him. A bus and street were named in the Oregon native's honor, and when he was engaged to his childhood sweetheart, the people of Hunstanton insisted on hosting the wedding at their small Roman Catholic church.
The gallery above captures the devastation and rescue efforts following this historic flood in the U.K., and offers a glimpse across the sea to the horrific damage done in the low-lying Netherlands, where the government was then forced to create an elaborate system of dams and storm barriers to ward off anything so devastating from happening ever again.