THE sea swept back into Teignmouth with a vengeance on a Sunday in December, 1989, just when the town was beginning to think it had licked the flooding menace.
Giant waves smashed over the promenade dumping thousands of tons of sand in the streets and sending a mass of water cascading into dozens of homes, shops, pubs and offices.
Cars were trapped and wrecked, walls and paving slabs on the seafront demolished, and all trains main line halted when the sea wall was breached.
The damage was put at hundreds of thousands of pounds and many of the flood victims were asking why the district council did not bring in more sandbags beforehand.
Although warnings of a storm were going out two days earlier, the first sandbags only arrived after the sea broke through.
Replying to the criticism Bernie Morris, the Teignbridge cleansing officer who was on the scene most of the day and evening, pointed out the only warnings they received referred to possible flooding from rivers – there was no mention of the sea.
‘We used all our local sandbags at Shaldon and Dawlish where we expected the threat to be, and had to bring in others from Kingsteignton when we realised the problem at Teignmouth.’
In reality, the deluge caught everybody by surprise. The town used to be regularly flood by sea and rain, but the new sea defences built in the 1970s seemed to do the trick. It kept the waves out and the town was lulled into a false sense of security.
But the storm proved that the sea may be contained for a while, but never fully tamed. It found a cunning way back by building the beach up so high that the sand was level with the top of the walls in places – the highest in living memory.
When the storm struck on the high tide, instead of the waves crashing harmlessly into the wall, they just rolled over the top.
The most vulnerable part was at the eastern end where the force of the waves knocked several people off their feet.
As the tide receded in the morning it left the seafront area looking like a battlefield. The beach looked as if it had tried to extend into the town, and a small army of workmen from the county and district councils, and private contractors moved into scoop the sand off roads and pavements with trucks and plant.
Like Canute, the new sea wall may not have been able to hold back all of the waves, but locals agreed that without it, even more of the town would have been under water.
Teignmouth Mayor Cllr Sylvia Russell promised there would be a full inquest into the flooding, and the response and readiness of local authorities.
‘This came out of the blue – an absolute freak, but there are still lessons to be learned. Nobody realised at first just how bad it was. the main part of the town was alright, and suddenly you walked around the corner towards Eastcliff and bang -– it was a different world,’ said Cllr Russell who spent most of the morning contacting Teignbridge and county officials for more help, and also lent a hand at stricken properties.
‘This was the first major flooding we have had since the new sea wall was built nearly 20 years ago. Perhaps we all thought we were safe, and it just proves that we cannot afford to be complacent.
‘But when the authorities did get their act together, they responded magnificently, and I would also like to thank all the individuals who helped those who suffered damage.’
For Pearl Baldwin the storm was particularly heartbreaking. She only moved into a new £75,000 flat on the seafront a few days before, but had to evacuate it when the sea smashed in and wrecked her home.
The ground floor flat at Eastcliff Court is only a few feet from the beach and the waves pounded against the property, caving in windows, and hurled hundreds of gallons of water and tons of sand through the rooms.
Pearl was almost in tears when she surveyed the full extend of the damage at daylight. Luckily friends from Teignmouth Baptist Church were on hand to help dig out the sand, lift carpets, drying out and board up windows.
‘I moved here because I wanted to be near the sea, but I did not think it would come this close,’ she managed to joke as what was left of her home was salvaged.
‘I was worried all Saturday evening as the storm increased, and friends persuaded me to stay with them. It was just as well I did. It has really upset me to see my flat looking like this, but I am just thankful I was not hurt.’
Several cars that drove along the Eastcliff part of the seafront on Saturday night were stuck in the sand that built up on the road.
Many other properties along Eastcliff were also flooded and the sea ran into the lowest part of the town around French Street, which is below sea level.
Houses, pubs, shops and a furniture warehouse were badly affected.
Paul Welsh, owner of the Courtney Garage, found his property under about two feet of water, and a great deal of equipment was lost. The damage would run into thousands of pounds and he was likely to be out of action at one of the busied times of the year.
Around the corner at the Kings Arms pub, landlord John Mulcany, saw a waterfall pour through into his bars.
Retired fish merchant Dave Day who lived in Teignmouth all his life, said he had never seen anything like it.
‘There has never been so much sand on the main beach – it was quite incredible how it built up over the last few days. It is just the sort of beach you want in the summer, but not during the winter storms’.
Teignmouth firemen were at the scene pumping out flooded properties and generally assisting with the mop-up operation. Local fire chief Station Officer Ian Radford said t was a great pity there were not more sandbags available earlier.
‘More bags would have been a great help because they could have been used to allow the main deluge on the seafront road to be diverted away in a more controlled manner, and they might have stopped a lot of the water going into individual properties.’