On February first, 1953 the largest flood in the Netherlands took place, remembered as “Watersnoodramp”. Not only was it the largest but it is also considered as one of the biggest natural disasters in the Netherlands.
It was a Monday night, January 31st when the flooding began it continued into the morning of Sunday. The storm surge hit The Netherlands, hit the east coast of England, Belgium and Germany were also affected to a degree. As a result, over 2,100 people died, and more than 1,800 of those were in the Netherlands. Apart from the lost lives, Watersnoodramp caused chaotic damage to livestock and homes.
How did the Watersnoodramp happen?
20 per cent of the Netherlands is below sea level and 50 per cent is less than one meter above it. Which means water management and living with water has always been an unmistakable part of Dutch history.
The North Sea is shaped like a funnel, so when a storm breaks from north or northwest and pushes the water southward, it cannot drain. This causes the water to build up and raise the sea level further. It’s no surprise that the 1953 flood was not the first one. In 1916, the Netherlands was struck by another flood which also took its toll.
On February 1st, 1953, a northwestern storm was blowing during the spring tide. This meant the water level was already higher than it normally would have been. Adding to this the wind pushed the water up to rise higher and higher, making the sea reach a record height of 4 to 5 meters above the average sea level.
The first dikes were breached between 4:00 and 6:00 am on Sunday morning by the storm surge. In a short amount of time, 165.000 hectares of land was covered by seawater. Many people were caught unprepared In those days, there was no warning system to let people know. In the end, there were 1800 victims.
From those who got the news, about 72,000 people were evacuated. Roads were destroyed and telephone lines were down. In many regions, the only transportation was by boat. Cattle died in droves, crops failed, buildings were completely ruined.
Large parts of the provinces of South Holland, Zeeland, and North Brabant were flooded.
The flooding in 1953 in the rest of Europe
The Netherlands was not the only country who felt the devastating effect of the 1953 flood Watersnoodramp. Countries like England, Belgium and Germany were also hit. According to the British Environment Agency 300 people died, about 24,000 houses were destroyed and 40,000 people were evacuated.
In Belgium, several dikes were breached and areas of Ostend and Antwerp were flooded. Up to 40 people lost their lives.
The Delta Works
After the disastrous results of the Watersnoodramp, it was unanimously agreed that protective measures be taken not just in the Netherlands, but in Europe. The iconic Thames barrier in Britain is one of the results.
In the Netherlands, the ideas were grander: The Delta Works. This is a system that we admire to this day. It’s consists of a system of dikes and storm surge barriers to protect low lying areas against flooding. These staggering solutions of engineering is still a big reminder that the North Sea will always impact the lives of the Dutch.
Work is still being done to handle flooding. In September 2008, reports showed that the Netherlands would need a massive new building program to strengthen the country’s water defenses against the effects of global warming. The plans included drawing up worst-case scenarios for evacuations and estimated costs at €100 billion. Yikes!
Lastly, here is a video to show the disastrous effects of the 1953 flood (in Dutch):
Feature Image: Agency for International Development/Pieter Kuiper