2. The North Sea flood of 1953
On the night of February 1st 1953, a combination of a spring tide and the associated North-Western storm on the North Sea led to a major natural disaster affecting the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands. In total 2,167 people were killed, of which 1,835 were from the Netherlands. This disaster has had a large influence on the way the Netherlands protects itself against the sea, today, and in the future.
2.1 Refuges, Levees and Polders
In the past, floods in the Netherlands occurred much more frequently. Herewith, sometimes thousands of people died.
To protect themselves from the sea, people began to build refuges; the so called ‘vlietbergen’ or ‘terpen’ mounds. As the size of these mounds started to grow, small villages were built on top these hills. To connect the villages, people constructed small levees between them, through what polders arose.
Thanks to the construction of levees and wind driven mills to keep the polders dry, the Netherlands grew larger, piece by piece.
2.2 Weakened levees
It already became clear that the levees were not tall enough to keep out high water levels, in the years before the North Sea flood of 1953. The total length of the levees was too long and they were weakened by both a lack of maintenance and through damage caused during the Second World War. A plan for structural improvement of the levees and the shortening of the coastline came arduously into action and so only a few small projects were actually carried out. By the end of January 1953, the Delta Commission presented the first report documenting the plans for the disconnection of the bigger sea arms for the protection from the sea. However, only a few days later, the inevitable happened.
2.3 Meteorological cause of the Flood
The poor condition of many of the levees in the delta area became painfully apparent on the morning of the first of February 1953. On the 30th of January in the South of Iceland, a storm field with a huge depression behind it arose. It came from the North-West in the direction of the Netherlands and dropped large amounts of water in the direction of the strait of Calais. This narrow passage served as a funnel, propelling the water more and more, while the water levels gradually rose. The situation worsened under the influence of a hurricane that formed on the edge of Scotland. In some places in the Netherlands the water already started to stream over the levees. On the night of the 31st of January the storm became stronger above the
North Sea, and the coastal areas saw wind speeds of force 10 on the Beaufort scale. In addition, the storm was combined with the spring tide, whereby under the influence of the position of the sun and the moon, the water rose much higher then it usually would.
The highest water level was reached at 03.24 a.m. that morning: 4.55 meters above the N.A.P. The levees were not designed to withstand these high levels and the first levees failed before the highest level was reached. In total 89 levees were destroyed.
2.4 Devastating power of the sea
Many people woke up frightened by the water that night. Houses collapsed due to the power of the streaming water and the raging storm. The severity of the situation in the affected area was however not yet visible to the outside world. The situation worsened when it became high-tide again later in the afternoon of the first of February. This flood took the most lives. Due to the fact that most of the levees were already destroyed, the water rose in the polder to an even higher level. Many of the houses that had survived the first flood were destroyed in the second. For many, help came too late.
Due to the flooded transport links, it was a long time before the rescue operations could begin. The severity of the situation only became clear on Monday the second of February. Inhabitants from the affected areas were evacuated and goods and sand bags were dropped via airplanes. A large aid program began, from within and far outside the Netherlands.
2.6 Recovery of the struck areas
Minister Drees announced on the 4th of February 1953, in the Second Chamber, that the recovery of the levees would receive the highest priority. Additionally, the government started the Delta-commission, led by the director-general of the Department of Waterways and Public Works, Mr. Maris. Meanwhile, volunteers and levee workers worked hard to close the holes in the levees as effectively as possible. Where the holes were too large they were closed with so called unity caissons. The area was officially declared dry at the end of 1953.
The consequences of the flood were catastrophic.
- 1,835 people died as a result of the disaster
- 200,000 cattle drowned
- 200,000 hectares of soil flooded
- 3,000 houses and 300 farms were destroyed
- 40,000 houses and 3,000 farms were damaged
- 72,000 people were evacuated
- 91 km of levees were heavily damaged in Zuid-Holland with holes of up to 1 km
- 10 km of levees were heavily damaged in Nood-Brabant
- 38 km of levees were heavily damaged in Zeeland with holes of up to 3.5 km