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Powerful North Sea storm prompts fear of flooding

A powerful storm triggered tidal surges and ferocious winds Friday, creating the threat of flooding, but left Britain and the Netherlands largely unscathed.

The peak of the predicted surge passed without causing any major damage. Hundreds of people were evacuated as a precaution, but no injuries were reported.

"It was a pretty close shave," British Environment Agency spokesman Jo Giacomelli said. "It was still very, very high tides indeed ... they were only about 20 centimeters (eight inches) below what we predicted."

In the Netherlands, Rotterdam Port halted all ship traffic until Friday evening. The Maeslant Barrier protecting Europe's largest port was closed Thursday for the first time under storm conditions since its construction in 1997.

The Thames River barrier, downstream from London, was also closed as a precaution.

Waves up to 20 feet (6 meters) high rolled up against sea defenses in Lowestoft, England, the most easterly point in Britain, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) northeast of London on the North Sea coast early Friday.

But by midmorning, concern eased and police were allowing residents to return to homes in low-lying areas.

"It didn't turn out as bad as we thought," said Jill Bird, 47, a hotel cook from Great Yarmouth. "We were very worried because this was the biggest surge since 1953, when several hundred people died. So we feel very, very lucky this morning."

In France, wind gusts of up to 110 kph (66 mph) whipped northern towns during overnight storms, blowing off rooftops and uprooting trees, according to regional emergency services.

Switzerland warned Friday of "considerable" avalanche danger in the east of the country, particularly on steep north-facing slopes above 2,500 meters (8,200 feet).

Fresh, loose snow has increased the risk of "slab avalanches," which can be triggered by lone individuals, said the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research.

Great Yarmouth, about 135 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of London, was also closed to traffic as the River Yare rose nearly to the surface of bridges. Police in Norfolk said rising water had breached the flood defenses in the town center.

Residents, however, were divided on whether the storm lived up to the warnings.

"We were told it was going to be the worst floods for 50 years but, so far, it looks like we may have escaped," said John Harrison, 60, who was watching from a bridge near neighboring Lowestoft.

Another resident of the town called the surging waters spectacular. "I've lived here all my life and never seen anything like it," said Chris Warnes, 55.

The storm did not hit Germany as hard as expected Thursday night but meteorologists were expecting a storm surge along the North Sea coast Friday afternoon, and the port of Hamburg was closed.

By the end of Friday, the high state of alarm along the entire Dutch North Sea coast had been eased and the Dutch union of insurance companies said the storm had been far less damaging than feared.

Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport reported numerous delays, but very few flights canceled, due to high winds.

The national weather bureau said the north of the country was still being buffeted by wind gusts of up to 90 kph (50 mph) in the late afternoon.

The storm also hit the Faeroe Islands, a Danish territory between Scotland and Iceland, forcing the main international airport at Vagar to close and ferry and bus companies to suspend their services.

A few ferry crossings between Sweden and Norway and Denmark, have been canceled, according to the Danish Road Directorate.

Britain's severe flood warnings were canceled Friday afternoon, although the Environment Agency warned that high tides and unsettled conditions could still cause problems over the weekend.

In Great Yarmouth, half a dozen surfers took advantage of the storm to test the waves.

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