07 The flood of 1953

The flood of 1953

The flood of 1953 was the greatest natural disaster to occur in the Netherlands in the 20th century. The combination of a heavy north-westerly storm and a spring tide caused flooding in large parts of the country. The disaster claimed the lives of 1,836 people and tens of thousands of animals, and many homes were destroyed. The Netherlands is commemorating the 65th anniversary of the disaster this year.

VOICE-OVER: On the night of 31 January to 1 February 1953, the biggest Dutch natural disaster of the twentieth century unfolds. Via the North Sea, a thousand-kilometre long windstorm makes landfall along the Dutch coast. Through a combination of the storm and spring tide, an extreme storm surge rapidly approaches. The Netherlands is still unaware of the impending disaster. (An animation.) Once the northwesterly storm reaches its peak, the dikes no longer offer protection. (A dike with houses behind it breaks.) Water deluges the country at more than 150 locations throughout Zeeland, Noord-Brabant and Zuid-Holland. The suffering is unprecedented. And then, to make matters worse, a fresh tidal surge strikes in the afternoon of 1 February. The consequences are almost impossible to comprehend. The flood costs 1,836 people their lives. Tens of thousands of animals drown, and there is major damage to buildings, agricultural land and infrastructure. After the flood of 1953, Rijkswaterstaat constructs the Delta Works to prevent recurrence. The disaster reminds us of how important it is to protect ourselves against high water levels. In a country that is largely vulnerable to flooding, work on flood risk management never stops. The water authorities and Rijkswaterstaat strengthen dikes, reinforce flood defences, manage high water levels and issue timely flood warnings. Everything to prevent another flood disaster, now and in the future. (The Dutch coat of arms next to: Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. The screen turns yellow and white. On-screen text: More information? Visit rijkswaterstaat.nl/english. A production by Rijkswaterstaat. Copyright 2018.) TRANQUIL MUSIC THAT FADES AWAY

The great flood of 1953: what happened precisely?

On 29 January 1953 a heavy north-westerly storm developed to the south of Iceland and moved southwards via Scotland. In the northern section of the North Sea the wind turned in a north-north-westerly direction, creating a 1,000-kilometre storm field that headed straight for our coast.

The highest recorded water level in Zeeland was 4.55 m above NAP in Vlissingen

The storm, with wind speeds of force 10, struck the Dutch coast on the evening of Saturday 31 January. In Zeeland the storm peaked at ten o’clock that night, in IJmuiden at one o’clock in the morning and in Den Helder at four o’clock in the morning. The combination of severe north-westerly gales and the spring tide caused a spring flood. The sea level surged to exceptional heights. At Hook of Holland the water reached a height of 3.85 metres above Normal Amsterdam Level (NAP) (an NAP level of 0 m is now roughly the same as the North Sea’s average sea level), a dangerously high level for the densely populated hinterland of the province of Zuid-Holland. The highest water level in the province of Zeeland was measured at 4.55 m above NAP at 3.24 in the morning. Many of the dikes were unable to withstand this level and were breached.

The disaster began on 31 January 1953 and continued into 1 February 1953

Dikes are breached, with disastrous consequences

The dikes were unable to cope with the volume of water and succumbed in more than 150 places in Zeeland, Zuid-Holland and Noord-Brabant, with disastrous consequences. On the Sunday afternoon residents were shaken by a second storm surge that caused even more casualties than the first. The flood took the lives of 1,836 people. More than 72,000 people were evacuated, and 47,000 cattle and 140,000 poultry were drowned. More than 150,000 hectares of land was inundated causing severe damage to infrastructure and farmland. The natural disaster destroyed 4,300 houses and other buildings and damaged 43,000 more. The total cost of the damage was 1.5 billion guilders (the equivalent of 5.4 billion euro in today’s money).

How could the disaster happen?

One of the reasons the severe storm could cause a disaster on such a scale was the poor condition of the dikes. Many of the dikes in the south-west of the Netherlands were too low and too weak. In the preceding years the water boards had carried out little maintenance on the dikes and there had been too little investment in them. Although the national government had spent some money on flood protection, the issue had received less priority during the post-war reconstruction after1945. Part of the reason why the disaster has gone down in history as a rare event is the extreme water levels and the duration of the storm, which lasted more than twenty-four hours.

Rijkswaterstaat helped to repair the dikes

The final hole in the dikes was sealed in Ouwerkerk on 6 November 1953

After the disaster, the damage had to be repaired. The national government paid for the repair of the breached dikes and coordinated the operation. The Dike Restoration Coordination Agency was established under the auspices of Rijkswaterstaat. Thousands of workers and more than 4,000 troops, including some from other countries, joined forces to repair the dikes. On 6 November 1953, nine months after the disaster, the final hole in the dike system was sealed in Ouwerkerk on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland in Zeeland.

Help from home and abroad

Aid operations were organised in the Netherlands and other countries to help the affected areas. The Red Cross played an important role in these efforts. Donations of money, goods and clothing poured in from around the world. Every week a fund-raising programme was broadcast on the Dutch radio under the motto ‘Purses open, dikes closed’. Dutch footballers played a friendly international match against France to raise money for the flood victims.

Sixty percent of the Netherlands is vulnerable to flooding

Measures to prevent another flood

Much of the Netherlands lies below sea level. The disaster of 1953 demonstrated more clearly than ever the importance of protecting the country properly against flooding. Stricter safety standards were adopted for primary flood barriers. The barriers were raised to the minimum height (the so-called Delta height as prescribed in the Delta Act) required to protect the Netherlands against flood tides and money is still invested every year to further strengthen the flood defences.

Delta Works

The Delta Works are part of the system of flood barriers designed to prevent another flood disaster in the future. They are the country’s largest flood defence system. Construction of the first of the Delta Works, the Hollandsche IJsselkering, commenced a year after the disaster. The entire project was completed in 1997 with the delivery of the Maeslantkering. There are thirteen Delta Works in all, consisting of dams, locks and storm surge barriers.

Sand Motor

Between Hook of Holland and Scheveningen we have constructed an artificial peninsula off the coast, which will enable the coast to grow naturally. The sand that has been deposited to form the peninsula is dispersed by the current and the wind. In the process it makes the coast wider and safer, while at the same time creating space for nature and recreation. The newly formed beach will protect the country against the rising sea level.

The Water Management Centre Netherlands (WMCN) is the centre of expertise and major source of information about the Dutch water system. It monitors the country’s flood protection system 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to provide reliable information about water levels and the threat of flooding.

Flood protection in the future

Looking further ahead, further measures are planned. Together with other water management agencies, we make the Netherlands a safe place to live, even for those who live below sea level.

Raising awareness of flood risks

Flood protection is a never-ending task in this country. One of Rijkswaterstaat’s responsibilities is therefore to raise public awareness of the risks of flooding in the Netherlands. One of the ways we raise awareness and keep people informed is with news reports on our website and our social media channels. In 2018, for example, we posted frequent reports on the New Year storm on 2 and 3 January (with a live blog) and the peak water level in the Rhine near Lobith.

Watersnood museum

The Watersnood museum in Ouwerkerk is devoted to the events during and after the flood of 1953. In addition to describing the facts and circumstances of the flood, the museum also raises visitors’ awareness of what they can do to improve their safety. For example, one section of the museum is devoted to explaining to children and adults what they will need to take with them if flooding forces them to flee to the attic of their home.

Overstroom ik?

Overstroom ik? is a website on which people can check whether they are living in a high-risk area. By entering their postal code, visitors to the site can see how high the water will rise in the event of a flood where they live. The site also provides tips and recommendations. For example, what is the best response to a threat of flooding: to evacuate or to stay where you are?