Today in Dutch history: the 1953 North Sea flooding disaster
The biggest natural disaster of the twentieth century in the Netherlands is without a doubt the North Sea flood of 1953.
It occurred on the night of Saturday, January 31 and the morning of Sunday, February 1. The floods struck the Netherlands the hardest, but also Belgium, England and Scotland were affected. The 1953 watersnoodramp cost the lives of 1.836 Dutch people and caused massive damage to livestock, homes and infrastructure.
The Netherlands post-World War II
The post-war period in the Netherlands had focused on rebuilding the country, which meant less money and attention was spent on improving dikes in coastal areas.
There had been reports that the coastal defences were in disrepair or too low in some areas, but the necessary resources to remedy this were prioritised elsewhere by the Dutch government to boost post-war recovery.
The geographical reasons
The Netherlands is a country with 20 percent of its territory below sea level and 50 percent less than one metre above sea level. This is the reason why its relationship with water is such an integral part of Dutch history.
This wasn't the first disastrous flood in the Netherlands in the 20th century, as the 1916 flood left a lasting mark as well. The North Sea is shaped like a funnel, so when a storm from the north or northwest pushes the water southward, it cannot escape very quickly and can start to build up, significantly increasing sea levels.
A "perfect storm"
On the evening of Saturday, January 31, 1953, a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm over the North Sea combined forces to create a storm tide that washed over or broke through the Dutch coastal defences.
A spring tide occurs twice in the lunar month when the sun and moon are in direct alignment with the earth. Their gravitational pulls reinforce each other and amplify the tides on earth, leading to what is called a spring tide which is higher than a normal high tide.
The combination of strong winds, the spring tide and low pressure led to a water level of more than 5,6 metres above the normal sea level in some areas.
In the evening of January 31 a heavy storm hit the Netherlands from the northwest. The first dikes were breached between 4 and 6 am on Sunday morning by the storm surge. 165.000 hectares of land was covered by seawater in a matter of hours.
Large parts of the provinces of South Holland, Zeeland and North Brabant became flooded. About half of the total number of casualties lost their lives during the night.
Some houses had managed to brave the first onslaught of the sea but had been severely weakened as a result. Survivors sought refuge in attics and on the roofs of homes that were still standing.
That Sunday afternoon, the tide and the strong winds battered the remaining houses, which, by that point, could no longer withstand the strong currents. The houses crumbled as a result, taking the people with them. Search and rescue operations did not really fully mobilise until after Sunday, and the full scale of the disaster was not apparent until the following Monday.
Heroes of the 1953 flood
The most famous incident of the 1953 flooding disaster is undoubtedly the barge that was used to reinforce a weakened dike, the Schielandse Hoge Zeedijk. The dike protected a large part of the densely populated Randstad, and major areas of the lands it protected were five metres and even 6,6 metres below sea level.
When it became clear that the dike would not survive for much longer, Nieuwerkerk’s mayor asked boat owner Arie Evegroen to steer his grain barge Twee gebroeders (Two brothers) in front of the weakest section of the dike, which had grown to a length of 14 metres.
After securing the barge in place with ropes, volunteers reinforced the weakened dike further with sandbags. This last-ditch effort ended up keeping the dike intact for the duration of the storm and saved the lives of many people.
The Delta Works
Realising that such infrequent but disastrous events could happen again, the Dutch government immediately commissioned major studies on strengthening the coastal defences in the aftermath of the 1953 floods.
Dutch engineers eventually developed the Delta Works, which consist of an extensive system of dams and storm surge barriers. These impressive feats of engineering serve as a reminder to this day that the North Sea is a force to be reckoned with for the low-lying Netherlands.