(CBS/AP) A low pressure system moving across the North Sea was threatening the entire east coast of Britain and parts of central Europe with potentially widespread flooding, forcing hundreds to their homes as a precaution.
High winds began lashing England's southeast coast early Friday morning, and snow was falling in Scandinavia.
Germany and Denmark had warned of wind gusts of up to 78 mph for the weather pattern, which is expected to last through Friday, said EUMETNET, a Geneva-based U.N. European network of 23 national meteorological services.
A moist northerly current in Central Europe also could cause high winds, "but even more damaging might be the extreme amounts of fresh snow to be expected on the northern fringe of the Alps," the statement said.
It added that more than 3 feet of snow could fall, "causing larger avalanches at a very early stage of the winter period."
Dutch port authorities prepared to close Europe's largest harbor in Rotterdam because of predicted storm surges as high as 13 feet and winds of up to 60 mph.
Residents of England's east coast braced for tidal surges rising up to three meters 9.8 feet in some areas, waves which the country's environmental chief warned could overwhelm flood defenses.
British Environment Secretary Hilary Benn warned lawmakers that "a tidal surge of up to 9.8 feet is making its way down the North Sea which could coincide with peak high tides. There is a risk of flood defenses being over-topped on the coast and in tidal rivers."
British media reported Friday morning that the storm surge appeared to be less dramatic than anticipated. At 8 a.m. local time (4 a.m. Eastern) water levels in many of eastern England's rivers were still rising, but not expected to reach the threatened level of almost 10 feet.
The Thames River barrier, which protects London from flooding, was closed Friday morning to cope with the expected surge.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown convened the government's crisis committee, COBRA, early Friday to coordinate the emergency services' response to any potential flooding.
The Environment Agency has issued eight severe flood warnings in the eastern part of the country, and many communities were evacuating vulnerable residents from low-lying areas. Hundreds of residents, many of them elderly, had been moved to shelters at schools and other public buildings Friday morning.
Other coastal residents spent the early morning hours Friday filling sand bags and trying to block their homes from the water.
Norwegian oil company StatoilHydro ASA is cutting offshore production by 320,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day and reducing southern North Sea platform staff because of the storm. The state-controlled oil company said it was stopping production and reducing staff at its Grane, Visund, Oseberg South and Heimdal fields until the storm passes.