North Sea Flood Kills Nearly Two Thousand People in Holland Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A severe windstorm over the North Sea and high spring tides created strong waves and the highest recorded storm surge for the North Sea, breaching dikes and sea walls protecting the Netherlands. The catastrophe, which killed nearly 2,000 people and 200,000 farm animals and destroyed at least 47,000 structures, disrupted post-World War II reconstruction efforts and emphasized the need for better water control and flood warning methods.

Summary of Event

Because the Netherlands has extended northern and western coasts along the North Sea, approximately half of its territory is near or beneath sea level; the majority of the small country has been flooded. After water breached dikes Flood control in 1943, Rijkswaterstaat (the ministry of waterways and public works) officials stated that most dikes would be insufficient against high tides, but wartime concerns took precedence over flood control. After World War II, engineers warned Dutch officials that dikes needed to be repaired and elevated to block storm surges. Dutch leaders did not regard dike reinforcement a priority over rebuilding from the war, and many people in Holland did not consider flooding an immediate threat because they assumed that the dikes, built a half meter (1.5 feet) taller than the highest known water level, were sufficient. Floods;Netherlands North Sea Flood (1953) [kw]North Sea Flood Kills Nearly Two Thousand People in Holland (Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1953) [kw]Flood Kills Nearly Two Thousand People in Holland, North Sea (Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1953) [kw]Holland, North Sea Flood Kills Nearly Two Thousand People in (Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1953) Floods;Netherlands North Sea Flood (1953) [g]Europe;Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1953: North Sea Flood Kills Nearly Two Thousand People in Holland[04090] [g]Netherlands;Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1953: North Sea Flood Kills Nearly Two Thousand People in Holland[04090] [c]Disasters;Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1953: North Sea Flood Kills Nearly Two Thousand People in Holland[04090] Juliana Drees, Willem Veen, Johan van Maris, August G. Beyen, Johan Willem Bernhard, Prince of Lippe-Biesterfeld

In a January 29, 1953, report, the Rijkswaterstaat’s chief engineer Johan van Veen reiterated demands to improve the dikes. The next day, a major storm began forming near Iceland. Heading southeast to Scotland, the low-pressure cyclone gained energy from warm air, intensifying gales the next day when it hit the United Kingdom, which suffered 300 lost lives and 24,000 damaged or destroyed structures. As the storm gained momentum over the North Sea, nearing the European continent on January 31, its wind speeds quickened. Aware of storm damages in England, and aware of a full moon, the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute issued warnings about tides and surges in the Netherlands for that morning and afternoon.

Storm wind-speeds reached more than 100 miles per hour in the early hours of Sunday, February 1, gusting consistently at that intensity during the next twenty hours. The storm coincided with a high tide in the Netherlands about 3:00 a.m. The simultaneous wind and tide caused the water to reach 4.55 meters (15 feet) above the Normal Amsterdam Water Level (NAP). North Sea waves pushed against seawalls and dikes in southwestern Holland. Unable to contain large amounts of water, some weaker dikes, including those at Kruiningen, Kortgene, and Oude Tonge, broke. The rush of water overwhelmed dikes, pounding through cracks and widening breaches. Seawater began covering islands throughout the province of Zeeland.

Dike workers were unable to pump floodwaters sufficiently because pumping stations were overwhelmed and there was no place to divert the water. Floodwater inundated inland areas, washed homes from their foundations, and drowned sleeping people as well as livestock. Surges caused hundreds of breaches. Workers placed sandbags in dike gaps despite the storm’s winds. After the tide receded during the morning, which lowered water levels, one could see the mud that coated almost everything in the floodwater’s path.

Unimpeded by dikes, another rush of floodwater occurred that afternoon, increasing casualties and property destruction. The Dutch government declared an emergency in the flooded southwestern provinces. South Holland, West Brabant, and Zeeland islands, particularly Scouwen-Duiveland, Tholen, and Goeree-Overflaake, were severely damaged. At Nieuwerkerk aan den IJssel, Mayor Vogelaar instructed a captain to sink a vessel in a broken dike, which helped minimize flooding into central Holland.

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Approximately 100,000 evacuees fled flooded areas. Prime Minister Willem Drees broadcasted orders for rescuing all flood victims. Troops representing various Netherlands military branches provided assistance, airlifting people and convincing many who did not want to leave their homes that weakened structures were dangerous. Helicopter crews distributed food and rubber boats. While some people reached places unaffected by the flood, others were only able to survive atop their homes or dike remnants. Rescuers piloted boats, including Queen Juliana’s yacht and fishing vessels, to rescue stranded people. High winds and tides continued to pummel Holland during evacuations, and snow and hail worsened conditions. Civil authorities helped find suitable living situations for displaced people in shelters and private homes, securing necessary supplies. Because Rotterdam did not flood, officials demanded residents there host evacuees.

Queen Juliana delivered a radio broadcast that Sunday, declaring the Netherlands was in a period of national mourning. Communication disruptions and flooded roads delayed foreign relief workers until February 2. U.S. lieutenant general Manton S. Eddy Eddy, Manton S. , the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, evaluated the Netherlands by air to plan U.S. troop help. Juliana, her mother Princess Wilhelmina Wilhelmina , and her husband Bernhard, Prince of Lippe-Biesterfeld, visited flooded areas and soothed victims. Dutch universities closed for students to aid relief efforts. Enduring sleet and frigid temperatures, volunteers piled sandbags to reinforce damaged dikes, amateur radio operators assisted communications, International Red Cross staff performed various tasks, and medical personnel examined human and animal evacuees to prevent epidemics. By February 5, floodwaters began dropping noticeably.

Prime Minister Drees requested an emergency session of Parliament and said the Netherlands needed disaster money similar to relief funds it had received for war compensation. Foreign Minister Johan Willem Beyen secured U.S. aid for agricultural losses. The Dutch government forbade exporting potatoes, the main crop of the affected areas, to control prices. Prince Bernhard directed the Nationaal Rampenfonds (the National Disaster Fund), and people worldwide sent money and items to help flood victims. Dutch industries were primarily in interior locations that had not flooded, so they continued production mostly uninterrupted.

Determined to prevent another flood, Drees declared on February 4 that repairing dikes was the most crucial government project. August G. Maris, Rijkswaterstaat director general, insisted on salvaging flooded Dutch islands. Dike employees and thirty thousand voluntary helpers started fixing dikes, draining land, and removing salts that were damaging agriculture. U.S. military engineers used surplus equipment such as Bailey bridges to seal breaches. Repair methods and materials varied in each flooded area, and local and national leaders’ disagreements—and more storms—delayed reconstruction. It took months before the flooded area was dry enough for evacuees to return and cultivate farmland.

Significance

Historians, who describe the 1953 North Sea Flood as Holland’s most severe since the devastating 1570 flood, designated it so because of its cost and its effect on millions of people in the Netherlands. The 1953 flood resulted in approximately 1,836 human deaths and destroyed at least 47,000 structures. Floodwater, having covered one-sixth of the Netherlands, reached 40 miles into the interior in some places. Approximately 750,000 people had resided in flooded areas, which totaled 1,335 square kilometers (515 square miles) and almost 330,000 acres, and an estimated 200,000 heads of livestock drowned. Cumulative losses and destruction totaled one billion guilders. In addition to affecting the economy, the flood affected the people of Holland emotionally. Artists and writers portrayed the flood in such works as Jan de Hartog’s novel The Little Ark (1953).

Dutch leaders immediately recognized the need for more effective weather warning systems and hydrological control. They established the Delta Committee on February 18, 1953, naming Maris the committee chair and allocating sufficient funds for engineers and scientists to pursue that commission’s Delta Plan. The Delta Plan called for a practical system of coastal hydraulic barriers supplementing surviving dikes to regulate the flow of water from the North Sea into Dutch rivers. This project involved building massive steel barriers—some programmed to respond to weather data and shut flood gates when necessary—to impede surges caused by storms and tides. Engineers envisioned constructing new barriers capable of resisting the strongest storms imaginable.

By May, 1956, a Delta Plan department was established in the Rijkswaterstaat. The Dutch parliament approved the Delta Law Delta Law, Dutch (1957) in November, 1957 (effective May 8, 1958), to oversee development and building of crucial sea defenses. Construction continued several decades after the North Sea Flood. Politicians have revised the legislation regulating hydraulic management according to technological changes, ecological issues, fishing interests, and economic demands relevant to the role of water in the Netherlands. Floods;Netherlands North Sea Flood (1953)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bijker, Wiebe E. “The Oosterschelde Storm Surge Barrier: A Test Case for Dutch Water Technology, Management, and Politics.” Technology and Culture 43, no. 3 (July, 2002): 569-584. Places the 1953 flood and damaged dikes in the context of scientific and engineering hydraulic methods before and after that event.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dendermonde, Max, and H. A. M. C. Dibbits. The Dutch and Their Dikes. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1956. Prepared by Rijkswaterstaat officials who were supervised by August Maris. Includes a facsimile of a speech Queen Juliana presented after the flood.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gerritsen, Herman. “What Happened in 1953? The Big Flood in the Netherlands in Retrospect.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Series A, Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences 363, no. 1831 (June 15, 2005): 1271-1291. A hydraulics researcher describes the Dutch disaster from an engineering perspective. Includes contemporary photographs, charts, and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoeksema, Robert. Designed for Dry Feet: Flood Protection and Land Reclamation in the Netherlands. Reston, Va.: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2006. A civil engineer examines the history of Dutch water control. One chapter discusses the 1953 flood, subsequent dike repair, and the Delta Project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McRobie, Allan, Thomas Spencer, and Herman Gerritsen, eds. The Big Flood: North Sea Storm Surge. London: The Royal Society, 2005. Collection of conference papers from a 2003 meeting at Cambridge University analyzing the 1953 storm and its impact worldwide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Netherlands Booksellers and Publishers Association. The Battle of the Floods: Holland in February, 1953. Amsterdam: Author, 1953. Primarily a pictorial account, which had been sold to raise money for the National Disaster Fund. Large map depicts locations affected by the flood.

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