Today in Dutch history: The 1953 North Sea flooding disaster
The biggest natural disaster of the 20th 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, and 2024 marks the 71st anniversary of the watersnoodramp.
Belgium, England and Scotland were also affected, but the flooding undoubtedly hit the Netherlands the hardest, costing the lives of 1.836 Dutch people and causing massive damage to livestock, homes and infrastructure.
The cause of the 1953 North Sea flood
The flooding has had a significant and lasting impact on the Netherlands - let's delve into the history of this catastrophic disaster.
Rebuilding the Netherlands post-World War II
The post-war period in the Netherlands 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.
Geographical reasons behind the 1953 floods
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.
January 31: 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.
Dutch coast hit by disastrous floods
On the evening of January 31, 1953, a heavy storm hit the Netherlands from the northwest. The first dikes were breached between 4am and 6am 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.
Second flood strikes on February 1
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, on February 1, 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.
The 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 (which contains the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague), and major areas of the lands it protected were up to 6,6 metres below sea level.
When it became clear that the dike would not survive for much longer, the mayor of Nieuwerkerk - a town in the province of Zeeland - 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.
Water management in the Netherlands: Introducing 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.
Video: YouTube / Rijkswaterstaat
The Netherlands commemorates the watersnoodramp
The Foundation for the Remembrance of the 1953 Flood Disaster currently commemorates the watersnoodramp and the lives lost every five years in Heijningen. One of the foundation's aims is to continue developing educational material for schools so future generations know about the disaster and continue working on solutions to current water problems.