At the end of January 1953, a high spring tide in the North Sea was whipped up by a severe cyclonic European windstorm, creating a fearsome storm tide. This phenomenon is rare, requiring an unusual combination of natural forces, but also deadly. A storm tide can be up to 5 m (17 ft) higher than the tallest regular tide and have a disastrous impact on the coastal areas it assaults.
The one that struck on the night of January 31 sank numerous vessels and overwhelmed coastal defenses in several countries, most notably the Netherlands and England. The low-lying Dutch province of Zeeland was hardest hit, although dykes collapsed and huge areas were flooded all along the coast, with over 1,800 casualties and 70,000 people evacuated from inundated or threatened areas. Some 30,000 farm animals were drowned, 10,000 buildings were destroyed and over 35,000 structures were badly damaged. Around 1,350 sq km (520 sq mi) of the Netherlands were flooded, including nine per cent of the country’s agricultural land.
Across the North Sea, eastern England also suffered grievously as floods engulfed parts of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. The storm tide smashed into a 1,600 km (995 mi) stretch of coastline, overwhelming sea defenses and putting 1,000 sq km (385 sq mi) of East Anglian countryside under water. At least 30,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes, around 25,000 residential and commercial properties were seriously damaged and the catastrophe claimed more than 300 lives.
In the aftermath of disaster, the Dutch government initiated a massive anti-flooding program called Deltaworks that would finally be completed 45 years later. In England, sea defenses along the East Coast were strengthened and the Thames Barrier was conceived to protect London from storm tides ripping up river. It was completed in 1982 and first used the following year.
When: January 31 to February 1 1953
Where: Netherlands, UK, Belgium, Denmark and France
Death toll: It is estimated that around 2,500 people died in the great North Sea flood of 1953 (including 1,835 in the Netherlands, 307 in the UK and over 250 mariners lost at sea).
You should know: in a dramatic variation on the famous Dutch legend of the boy Hans Brinker who saved his community of Haarlem by putting a finger into a leaking dyke, the river ship Two Brothers was navigated into a breached dyke on the Holland Ijssel River to successfully plug the widening hole and thus prevent extensive flooding that would have affected 3,000,000 people in the South and North Holland coastal provinces.