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Huge areas of the Netherlands lie below sea level and the country depends on a complex system of dykes and sea defences to keep it safe. Although the Netherlands suffered a series of severe floods in 1404, 1421, 1530, 1570, 1717 and 1916, it was still woefully ill prepared for what happened in 1953 – the ‘Watersnoodramp’ was a disaster of epic proportions that totally engulfed parts of the Netherlands, lead to tragic loss of life and unprecedented devastation.
The Storm Clouds Gather
The ‘Department of Waterways and Public Works’ had been raising concerns over the condition of the country’s dykes and sea defences for several years. They urged drastic action and recommended that structural reforms be implemented with immediate effect. In 1939 a special ‘Storm Tide’ commission was established and given a mandate to investigate and propose an entire programme of improvements.
The more immediate threat of a German invasion after the outbreak of the World War II however, meant that the flooding risk was less of a priority and the project was put on hold. In 1943, while the war raged on, sea levels rose to perilous levels and water breached many of the country’s defence systems. Even after the cease of hostilities, the Dutch concentrated on rebuilding the homes and properties that had been destroyed by the Nazi bombers and ignored the menace of their deteriorating dykes. Food shortages prompted the reclamation of additional land, often in low lying areas, which only increased the countries exposure to potential flooding.
A Storm of Biblical Proportions
The night of 31st January 1953 was one that those who survived will never forget. Hurricane strength winds precipitated a huge tidal surge in the North Sea, a situation that was exacerbated by high tide. Water levels rose more than five meters above sea level, suddenly swamping Dutch sea defences and deluging parts of Zuid-Holland, Zeeland and Noord-Brabant.
In those days there were no night time radio broadcasts and telephone lines had been brought down by the extreme weather. The delay in flood warnings and the frightening speed at which the flood waters engulfed affected areas hampered a timely evacuation. The majority of inhabitants awoke to find fast moving flood water surrounding their properties, by which time it was already too late to escape. Homes and buildings collapsed under the sheer force of the water and sadly many people and livestock were swept away.
The morning of the 1st February brought temporary relief when the water briefly receded, allowing survivors to scramble to higher ground. Those who made it onto the rooftops of submerged buildings were to endure a long and desperate wait for help however, as most outside the flood zone still didn’t realise just how bad the situation was. While local villagers attempted individual rescues in small rowing boats, a second, deadly wave of flood water hit in the afternoon. The already damaged dykes were now powerless to prevent this renewed onslaught from pouring onto the polders and washing away everything in its path. The Hollandse Ijssel dyke began to look increasingly exposed at Groenedijk – if this defence crumbled an additional three million people were in immediate danger. Just as a large hole opened up and began to let in water, the mayor of Nieuwerkerk commandeered a large river boat called the ‘Twee Gebroeders’. In a daring attempt to save as many lives as possible, he instructed the captain to sail to the gap to try and plug it with the vessel. Miraculously this brave plan actually succeeded and further loss of life was avoided.
Help Finally Arrives
Salvation for those still trapped finally came on Monday 2nd February, when large scale rescue operations got underway. Belgium, France and England all arranged military assistance, despite being impacted by the flood themselves. Canada and the United States also responded by supplying a number of helicopters to support the mass evacuation that ensued.
By the 3rd February the immediate crisis appeared to be over and the authorities began their damage assessment. The human cost was catastrophic with some 1836 souls having perished. In addition to the loss of more than 200,000 livestock, in excess of 3000 homes and farms had also disappeared and 43,000 properties were left uninhabitable, displacing 72,000 people. Even more worryingly, huge swathes of farm land had been contaminated by salt water, rendering the once fertile soil useless. The total financial cost was estimated at over 1 billion guilders.
Coastal regions of the UK such as parts of Scotland, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex were also afflicted causing a further 307 deaths. 28 died in the Belgium province of West Flanders and a further 230 perished on ferries and fishing trawlers caught out at sea during the storm.
The Delta Plan
Both Queen Juliana and Princess Beatrix visited the flood zone a few days later, to offer their support to the victims and, in a show of national solidarity, a countrywide relief fund was established. Numerous charity auctions were organised and enterprising soldiers sold bowls of ‘erwtensoep’ (pea soup) at events known as ‘Snertveldslag’ (soup battle). The people of the Netherlands did all they could for their fellow citizens, supplying blankets, warm clothing and even temporary housing for the evacuees, many of whom had lost everything. A horrified international community also donated generous sums to aid a swift Dutch recovery.
The importance of securing sea defences was no longer in question and experts began urgently investigating preventative measures, which resulted in the acclaimed Delta Works Project. This ambitious and sustained programme of work, intended to defend the estuaries of the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt, began in 1958 and didn’t complete until a final storm surge barrier was implemented near Rotterdam in 1998.
Every year, on 1st February the Netherlands collectively remembers the terrible events of 1953. Tragically, the death toll from the Watersnoodramp was revised upwards in 2002, when it was revealed that a baby born on the night of the 31st January had also drowned.