This year in the Netherlands we are reflecting on the flood of 1953 (Watersnoodramp). Even though it is now 70 years ago, this disaster is still written in the memory of many and still evokes many emotions. The flood had a major impact on the country, then and still today. It is therefore not surprising that there are commemorations, including one in the presence of members of the Royal Family.
On Saturday, January 31, 1953, the country was hit by a very severe storm. There was already a warning for “dangerous high water”. Due to a lack of means of communication, this warning only got through to a limited extent. In the early morning of Sunday 1 February things went wrong. The combination of a very strong storm and spring tide caused the water level to reach a record high. This caused the dikes to break in many places. The water could now flow freely into the land. The province of Zeeland was completely flooded in many places, the water sometimes rose to the eaves of houses and farms. The west side of the province of North Brabant and the southern parts of the province of South Holland were also hit.
Due to the flood, much of the land disappeared under water. Houses and farms turned into ruins. Residents tried to save themselves by going to the attic of their home or even sitting on the roof. Some came to safety, others still drowned. A second tidal wave in the course of Sunday caused additional damage and casualties. Houses that had survived the first wave still collapsed.
A total of 1836 people lost their lives in the Netherlands. Especially the places Oude-Tonge, Nieuwekerk and Stavenisse were hit hard. About 40% of the victims lived in these three places. About 100,000 people lost their homes and belongings. Tens of thousands of animals drowned. The consequences have proved to be a lifelong trauma for many.
The disaster made it painfully clear that the Netherlands had to work hard on strengthening the dikes and taking other precautions. Shortly after the disaster, a committee was formed to come up with plans. In 1957/8 the Delta Act was passed by the Dutch parliament. Based on this law, a complete structure of dams and barriers was set up from the late 1950s. The last parts were completed in 1997. The Delta Works made a big impression in the rest of the world. Today, the Delta Works are a tourist attraction, for young and old and for people from the Netherlands and abroad. A visit to the Flood Museum in Zierikzee and the Neeltje Jans park show what happened 70 years ago and how the country reacted to it.
Unfortunately, not all bodies could be identified after the disaster. They were given a final resting place in a grave without a name. In recent years, forensics have tried to identify the unknown victims. Sometimes they succeeded, but there is more work to do. It was recently announced that a new project will be carried out, in which next of kin are asked to submit DNA which will then be compared with that of victims. In the hope that eventually every victim can still be identified. Even if it is more than 70 years later.
When we think of the flood disaster of 1953, we always think of the victims in the Netherlands. But we must not forget that the high water also had consequences for other countries. 28 people died in Belgium. And in England and Scotland there were 307 and 19 deaths respectively. Another 220 people died at sea. The British casualties included 133 passengers on the Princess Victoria ferry.
Links to websites
This article is a summary of what is written on several other websites.
Wikipedia pages exist for Watersnood van 1953 (NL) and North Sea flood 1953 (EN), and for Deltawerken (NL) and Delta Works (EN).
Rijkswaterstaat, a federal agency, under the Ministry of Infrastructure and Watermanagement, helped to repair the dikes after the flood in 1953.
The Watersnoodmuseum in Zierikzee has digitized its image collection.
Delta park Neeltje Jans organizes guided tours and boat trips and introduces everyone to the Delta Works, but also the sea and its flora and fauna.
Images used for this article are in collections of NARA, Rijkswaterstaat and Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed.