The flood of 1953, usually referred to as the Flood of the Flood or February disaster and initially also known as St Ignatius Flood or the Beatrix Flood, took place from Saturday, January 31, Sunday, February 1, 1953.
The disaster was caused by a storm surge in combination with a spring tide, in which the water in the funnel-shaped southern North Sea rose to extreme heights.
The number of deaths was 1,836 in the Netherlands, 307 in the United Kingdom, 224 at sea, 133 in the wreck of an English ferry, and 28 in Belgium. The disaster prompted the development of much improved coastal defenses with heavy storm surge barriers.
The most drastic is the Delta Works in the Netherlands, while the Thames Barrier and a storm surge barrier in the River Hull has been built in England.
A storm tide can be extra dangerous on the coast if it coincides with the high tide, or even worse, with a spring tide, the fortnightly tide in which the difference between high and low tide is greatest. The (spring) tide is then increased with the storm tide. This was the cause of the flood of 1953.
On Saturday, January 31, a hurricane-force storm hit the Orkney Islands above Scotland. This severe northwesterly storm developed over the North Sea’s full length during the day and pushed the water in the funnel-shaped North Sea up to record height.
There was an elongated storm field from the northwest to north, the most dangerous direction in the evening and night. Moreover, the storm lasted a very long time.
De Kooy near Den Helder reported a daily average wind force of 8 on both the 31st and the 1st. In the Netherlands, the dikes in the Delta area broke down in many places and a large part of the province of Zeeland, the South -Holland islands, and parts of West Brabant underwater.
For example, on the night of Saturday, January 31 to Sunday, February 1, 1953, the Netherlands was hit by one of the greatest natural disasters in its history, the largest even since 1570 (third All Saints’ Flood).
The Damage Done.
In the Netherlands, the disaster took the lives of 1,836 people. The flood in the southwest of the Netherlands caused extensive damage to livestock, homes, buildings, and infrastructure.
About 100,000 people lost their homes and belongings. Tens of thousands of animals drowned. 4,500 houses and buildings were destroyed, and 200,000 hectares of land were flooded.
The South Holland village of Oude Tonge was the place where most victims fell: 305 dead. For many survivors from the affected areas, the memories of the disaster are a lifelong trauma.
There were also floods in England, Belgium, and Germany and hundreds of victims. Many lost their lives at sea in shipwrecks. In the Ardennes, a snow layer of two meters also arose because, after the storm, a northerly flow of cold, unstable air continued to supply for several days.
The course of events.
Saturday evening, January 31, 1953, there was a heavy northwesterly storm. It was low tide on the southwest coast of the Netherlands around midnight.
So it would be high water there on Sunday morning 1 February between 4 and 6 o’clock. From Saturday morning, the Storm surge signal service reported to the authorities subscribed to the service of the upcoming ‘very severe north-westerly storm.’
During low tide on that Saturday evening, the water level was about the same as it normally is at high tide. Moreover, it was spring tide, which meant that the water level would rise even more. The general forecast warned that Saturday evening for ‘dangerous high water,’ then the highest possible state of alarm. However, this warning was not heard or misunderstood by many in the disaster area.
During this time, the radio closed at midnight and attempted to keep it on air failed. The telephone exchanges still manned at that time also closed in the evening. In 1953, the Grevelingen and Oosterschelde were still completely open sea arms.
During the disaster night, the water was very high there. At the head of the island of Schouwen-Duiveland, the water level reached the highest level of the entire Dutch coastline. More inland, at Bruinisse, the rising water from the Grevelingen and the Oosterschelde converged.
Early Sunday morning, the water level there rose to NAP + 4.5 meters. An unparalleled record. Between 4 and 6 in the morning, dikes broke everywhere. Especially the north and east sides of the Oosterschelde (Stavenisse, Ouwerkerk, Nieuwerkerk), of the Grevelingen (Oude-Tonge and Nieuwe-Tonge), and the Hollandsch Diep (Schuring and ‘s-Gravendeel) were severely affected. In some places on Goeree-Overflakkee, the water then flowed so fast into the polders that villages such as Oude- and Nieuwe-Tonge were two to three meters underwater within about half an hour.
Elsewhere the flooding was more gradual, and /or the water did not rise as high. For example, the water reached Ooltgensplaat, a village close to Oude- and Nieuwe-Tonge, only around 7 am, and rose to a height of about two meters.
The highest water level was not even reached in the course of Sunday afternoon. Telephone and telegraph connections had been damaged and rendered useless by the flood. Several dozen radio amateurs set up an emergency radio network within hours.
They worked for ten days and nights to provide radio communication with their transmitters. It was virtually the only contact between the flooded areas and the outside world in those early days.
A large national relief campaign was launched, supported by the radio. The NCRV presenter Johan Bodegraven became famous with the very successful — and first massive — money-raising campaign Open, close dikes.
A lot of help was offered at the local, national, and international level — a total of around 138 million guilders would be collected for those affected. Relief supplies (clothing, household goods, linen, and food) were also sent from all over the world. The Dutch Red Cross received so many goods that she no longer knew what to do with them after some time.
Some of the goods were then shipped to other disaster areas or countries in the developing world. Reconstruction of the affected areas started as early as 1953. The Scandinavian countries, in particular, supplied a lot of building materials, sometimes even entire prefabricated houses. Throughout Zeeland, one can still see houses of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, or Finnish cut.
The discussion about dyke security got underway in Dutch politics. The Delta Committee was established, and the Delta Plan was born, which included the closure of several sea arms.
The reconstruction and the realization of the Delta Works brought a lot of employment to Zeeland. Moreover, so much money had come in through the aid that many victims were better off financially than before the disaster. The province flourished in the years after the flood, which led to decades of progress in a few years.
In Zeeland, people, therefore, know the cynical joke: ‘Lord, give us today the daily bread and a flood every five years.’ According to Statistics Netherlands, the gross domestic product for the whole of the Netherlands grew by 8.4 percent in the year of the disaster, an unprecedentedly high percentage.
The national government increased consumption by ten percent, and investment in 1953 was sixty percent higher than the year before. All this gave a powerful positive impulse to the Dutch economy.