Netherlands Flood – January 31, 1953

A combination of high tide and severe wind storm raised the level of the North Sea sixteen feet above normal, sufficient to overwhelm the nation’s protective dikes and flood large areas.

A combination of a high spring tide and a severe windstorm combined to create a major natural disaster along the coastlines of Netherlands and England on the night of January 31, 1953. Belgium, Denmark, and France were also affected by what happened. The water level on the coast of Netherlands rose sixteen feet above normal so that the dikes were overwhelmed and extensive flooding followed.

The vast majority of all the damage that was inflicted on the countries bordering the North Sea occurred in one country, Netherlands. There, over 1,800 were drowned, 72,000 displaced, and 47,000 homes either destroyed or seriously damaged. About 800,000 acres of rich farmland were submerged for days in salt water and farmers lost 250,000 of their cattle, hogs, and poultry.

The people of Netherlands, or Holland as it is more generally known, had been warned of the poor condition of many of the dikes in reports dating back to 1928 and 1934 but little action was taken because the costs of improvements were considered prohibitive. It is easy today to make a comparison with New Orleans where the poor conditions of the foundations on which its protective levees were built caused the disaster of 2005. New Orleans is a city just like the whole country of Holland in the sense that almost all of it is close to sea level.

Like the leaders of Holland, the authorities responsible for the protection of New Orleans decided it was too costly to rebuild the city’s levees. After the disaster, just as the people of Holland found out, they discovered it would have been far less costly to rebuild the levees before Hurricane Katrina struck than face the enormous costs they incurred in late 2005 and in 2006.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, Dutch engineers launched a plan for constructing a series of polders, a name given to land reclaimed from fresh or salt water. Today there are three thousand polders. Dikes were built around the areas reclaimed from the sea and, because some water always seeps into the protected areas behind the dikes, there is a constant need to pump out excess water. In earlier times, this was accomplished by using windmills and later on by employing steam and electric pumps.

Traditionally, the reclaimed land was used for agriculture but, with the growing population of the country, by about the middle of the twentieth century, Holland began to build cities on them. This practice has continued ever since. These developments mean that more and more people have become exposed to the dangers of flooding so the need to maintain their dikes increases year by year. This is why, periodically, as happened in 1928 and 1934, the condition of the dikes is examined in detail. As has already been noted, not all the recommendations of these reports are attended to because of the costs involved.

The outstanding example of land reclamation in Holland was the closure of the Zuider Zee in the 1930s, involving the construction of a twenty-mile dike that would cut off an area of ocean measuring twelve miles by thirty-five miles in extent and create from it in due course an inland sea. Four polders were drained once the ocean had been completely cut off and Holland had added to its territory more than 400,000 acres of land, most of them subsequently used for agriculture. The main reasons for extraordinary efforts like these lie in the limited amount of land available nationally and the rapid growth of population over the past hundred years. Netherlands presently has a population of more than sixteen million. In 1900 there were five million people.

The total area of the country is a little more than 20,000 square miles and much of this consists of rivers, canals, and lakes. Even with the additional land reclaimed from the sea Holland ends up with a population density that is one of the highest in the world. With more than 25 percent of the land area of the country being below sea level a very effective system of water control is needed to keep the land dry and habitable. Modern pumping stations work day and night to make sure that these conditions are maintained.

In the 1934 report it was pointed out, as one example, that the large city of Dordrecht at the estuary of the Rhine, had inadequate protection from flooding. Almost every dike was too low. Something had to be done about them. In response to the 1934 recommendation it was proposed, as a cost-saving measure, that walls of a few inches high be added to existing dikes so this measure was implemented on seventy-five miles of the dikes that protected Dordrecht. In 1943, water levels overtopped these dikes and Dordrecht as well as its surrounding lands was flooded.

From the outbreak of World War II to 1945 there was nothing that could be done about the condition of the dikes. The country was under foreign occupation. During this time Zeeland suffered a tremendous amount of damage. Some of the dikes were bombed by British and American forces as part of their attack on the German occupying forces and the land was flooded. Repairs started in March 1945 when the country was free and in February 1946 all the gaps were filled in. These unforeseen repairs also helped distract the attention away from raising the dikes.

It is easy to understand why people were not too interested in spending money on improving the dikes. There had not been a flood in many years and the best immediate return on investments for Holland, an impoverished country in 1945, was the agricultural sector. The land had been contaminated by salt for several years following the wartime bombing with the result that crop yields were very low. Whatever money was available for investment was therefore spent on agriculture. In addition, the damages from the war demanded attention. For a few years everything seemed to be going well even though the dikes had not yet received the attention that had been demanded for them.

On January 31, 1953, however, an unusual and unexpected set of circumstances profoundly changed everything for the citizens of Holland. A mid-latitude storm of great strength had moved south from Iceland on the previous day, then along the east coasts of Scotland and England with a breadth of coverage that included the whole of the North Sea. This storm reached Holland as the local tide was at its peak. The combination of the two events raised the ocean water level sixteen feet above normal, overtopping the dikes and, with the weight of the water being thrown against the dikes, forcing them to collapse.

The dikes had not been designed to withstand such height and pressure from water and by 3 A.M. on January 31 the first of the dikes was broken. The next to fall was not what was expected. In the design of the system of polders there are several lines of dikes extending landward from the sea. The first line is made strongest because it has to withstand the first and biggest blow from the sea. The others are progressively less massively built because it is assumed that the water reaching them will have less momentum than it had when closer to the sea. What happened on January 31 was not typical, and certainly not the conditions for which Dutch engineers had planned.

The sixteen-foot wave of water than overtopped the first one or two lines of dikes was so powerful that it hollowed out the foundations of the weaker dikes farther inland so that they collapsed. It was almost an exact repeat of the way the levees collapsed in New Orleans. Thus, from an early stage of the tragedy, the cities and farms that should have suffered last became the earliest victims. They had no time to escape inland and large numbers of them lost their lives. Before the end of the day and long before anyone could put corrective measure in place eighty-nine dikes had been broken through.

Many woke up in the middle of the night as the water reached them.  They quickly found themselves isolated, shut inside their homes. Many homes collapsed and a few managed to hold on to floating debris until they were rescued. Most were drowned. Where homes remained in place, people climbed on to the roofs, hoping that they could stay above the final water level. All telephone and radio communications were cut off. By the morning of February 1 the tide had receded and the water level dropped. There were individual rescue operations taking place.

Villagers in boats looked for victims and brought them to higher land. The severity of the tragedy was still unknown to outside places because of the total breakdown of communications. Conditions worsened when a second flood occurred in the afternoon of February 1. This flood cost even more lives. Because the dikes had already been breached, the water flowed into the polders with ease. Many houses that survived the first flood collapsed during the second. For many people the help came too late.

On February 1, the dikes that protected areas of north and south Holland showed signs of giving way and there was widespread fear that three million people might be a risk. One section that had not been reinforced with a stone layer began to break and, despite attempts by volunteers to repair it, it gave way, leaving a huge gap into which water rushed. The mayor of Nieuwerkerk took action immediately. He ordered a ship that was nearby to sail into the gap in the dike and this plugged the gap, providing enough time for supplementary work to be done. Such has always been the story of Holland. Every child in that country knows about the boy, whether apocryphal or not, who put his finger and then his hand in a dike to prevent a leak developing into a flood.

By February 2, large-scale relief was slowly getting under way and the severity of the situation better understood. Helicopters flew over the disaster-hit area and started to drop supplies and sand bags. Aid from abroad was also offered. Belgium, England, the United States, Canada, Denmark, and France sent materials and soldiers. February 3 saw the end of the crisis as far as water levels and storm activity were involved. In some places people were still stuck but evacuations had begun and it was possible to start inspecting the damage and begin restoring the dikes.

After the disaster a new and comprehensive plan was initiated to protect the areas of high-density population around the Rhine estuary. A network of barrier dams would be built to seal off most of the large sea inlets. By so doing the exposed coastline of the country was reduced in length by more than four hundred miles. The construction work on this new and very big project began in 1958 and the last part of it was finished in 1986. It remains to add to the tragedy of Holland that other coasts than those of Holland were affected by this flood, albeit to a much less extent. Before the surge of water reached Netherlands it had already caused devastation in the United Kingdom. Along its coastline more than a thousand miles of coastline and seawalls were damaged.

At many places they breached, inundating as much as five hundred square miles of land. More then 24,000 properties were seriously damaged and over 30,000 people were forced to evacuate. At Felixstowe in Suffolk many people were killed when their homes were destroyed by water. Thirty-eight people lost their lives in that community. In Essex the damage was even bigger. Canvey Island was completely inundated. Over fifty-eight lives were lost. The Seafront village of Jaywick near Clacton lost thirty-seven inhabitants when it was flooded.

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