The Dutch Flood Disaster of 1953

The ‘Watersnoodramp’ (flood disaster) of 1953 was one of the biggest floods ever to affect the Netherlands and led to both a catastrophic loss of life and widespread destruction. It should not, however, have been entirely unexpected.

Large swathes of the Netherlands lie below sea level and the country depends heavily on sea defences and a network of dykes for protection. Over the centuries Holland has been affected by several floods, the most notable of those occurring in 1404, 1421, 1530, 1570, 1717 and more recently in 1916.

Events Leading up to the Disaster

The Dutch ‘Department of Waterways and Public Works’ had warned for many years that the nations dykes and defences were in a poor state of repair and recommended that significant structural reforms be carried out. A special ‘Storm Tide’ commission was set up in 1939 to research and propose a programme of flood prevention improvements. However, the outbreak of the Second World War diverted attention away from the threat of potential invasion by water to the very real invasion of the German army and the work of the commission was abruptly put on hold. In 1943 water levels became dangerously high, with the sea breaching many of the countries defences, an ominous sign of things to come. At the end of hostilities though, the Dutch were far more focused on repairing the extensive damage caused by the destruction of war, than attending to the ever deteriorating condition of their dykes. In fact this situation was further exacerbated by an acute need for more agricultural land to offset widespread Dutch food shortages and significant advances in engineering allowed the reclamation of even lower lying ground from the sea, exposing greater areas to the risk of flooding.

A Storm of Epic Proportions

On the night of 31st January 1953, a severe storm with hurricane strength winds caused a massive tidal surge in the North Sea which also happened to coincide with high tide. The water level rose by more than five metres above sea level, inundating Dutch sea defences and causing sudden and widespread flooding in the regions of Zuid-Holland, Zeeland and Noord-Brabant.

To compound matters, flood warnings did not reach affected areas quickly enough to allow for prompt evacuation - radio stations didn’t broadcast at night and telephone communications had already been disrupted by the adverse weather conditions. As a result, many people did not learn of the flood until they were actually awakened by the treacherous flood waters swirling at their doors in the middle of the night. And the force of the water was so powerful that many homes simply collapsed and both people and livestock were swept away by the torrents.

There was momentary respite on the morning of 1st February when the flood waters temporarily retreated allowing some survivors a window of opportunity to escape to higher ground. Many climbed onto rooftops and awaited rescue by boat, but it was to be a long and terrifying wait before major rescue operations would come to their aid. The outside world was still largely unaware of the terrible extent of the disaster and while local villagers desperately attempted individual rescues in small rowing boats, a second surge of floodwater hit in the afternoon. The breached dykes were by now completely ineffective and could do nothing to prevent water surging onto the polders and washing away those homes that had managed to withstand the first onslaught. Events seemed likely to deteriorate further as the dyke at Hollandse Ijssel (which protected three million people in low lying areas) looked increasingly vulnerable at Groenedijk, where it was not sufficiently reinforced. It did eventually succumb to the flood waters and a dangerous, gaping hole opened up. The mayor of Nieuwerkerk frantically commandeered a large river vessel called the ‘Twee Gebroeders’ and ordered the owner to navigate it directly to the damaged area in a bid to try and plug the hole. Amazingly this audacious and daring plan succeeded and more suffering was thankfully averted.

Rescue and Evacuation

For those still anxiously awaiting rescue, help finally arrived on Monday 2nd February. Large scale relief came with the help and support of neighbouring countries (some of which had also been affected by the flood) including Belgium, France and England who sent military personnel to assist in search and rescue operations. Canada and the US also provided much needed urgent assistance, including helicopters to aid the enormous evacuation operation that was underway.

By the 3rd of February the worst appeared to be over and experts began to assess the damage to sea defence systems and investigate how to secure them once more. The cost in terms of human life was overwhelming, with 1836 people known to have died and over 200, 000 animals and livestock also swept away. More than 3000 houses and farms were totally destroyed, while another 43,000 were severely damaged, leaving 72,000 people displaced. Salt water had contaminated large sections of agricultural land which meant that previously fertile fields would not be productive for many years to come. The estimated financial impact of the flood was put at a staggering 1 billion Dutch guilders.

The flood of 1953 also badly impacted parts of the UK including coastal areas of Scotland, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, wiping out some 307 people and in Belgium another 28 people were killed in West Flanders. The appalling loss of life did not stop there - the ferry MV Princess Victoria and several fishing trawlers disappeared in the storm at sea, along with the 230 poor souls on board.


Recovery and the Delta Plan

Queen Juliana and Princess Beatrix visited the flooded areas just days after the disaster to see for themselves the extent of the destruction and offer their support to a severely traumatised Dutch population. A national programme to raise relief funds was initiated incorporating charity auctions such as the ‘Snertveldslag’ where soldiers sold bowls of Dutch ‘erwtensoep’ (pea soup). The entire country pulled together in a show of solidarity as evacuated people were provided with temporary accommodation, warm clothing and blankets and civilian volunteers mobilised to clear the streets from debris. The Netherlands also received large donations from the international community, which was shocked at the unprecedented level of devastation.

Immediate and urgent talks began on how to protect the country from future flood disasters, which prompted the implementation of the ambitious Delta Works Project. This famous and protracted project, designed to protect the estuaries of the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt, began in 1958 and only completed, with a storm surge barrier near Rotterdam marking the final stage, in 1998.

Today the dead are still commemorated every 1st of February and as recently as 2002, in a tragic twist, the death toll was revised upwards when it was discovered that a baby born on the night of the 31st January / 1st February had also sadly drowned.