The floods of 1953
A video report by the NOS about the flood disaster of 1953
On the night of Saturday, January 31 to Sunday, February 1, 1953, a hurricane-like northwesterly storm raged that sent the water into the funnel of the North Sea between England and the Netherlands. Along the Dutch coast, the dunes and dikes were attacked by high waves and in many places, especially in the southwestern archipelago, the dikes broke. Low-lying polders flooded and the churning water destroyed farms and houses with enormous force. Roads disappeared under water, telephone and telegraph cables were broken, the drinking water supply stagnated completely.
People who lived close to the dyke tried to get by and hurriedly took only some hand luggage. But for many elderly and infirm this was an impossible task. They fled to attics or slightly higher situated houses and churches in the village centers.
The polder wardens, lock keepers and fishermen occasionally went to the harbor or near the dike to see what the situation was like. At five o’clock in the afternoon, the water in Bruinisse was a few decimeters in the harbor area. This in itself was not worrying because this often happened at high tide. But at 11 pm, at low tide, there was just as much water as usual at high tide. And then the new flood came on top of that. In almost all places people were busy putting the floodboards in the denominations and installing extra bulkheads until late at night.
Almost all dikes could handle a water level of two to two and a half meters above the normal flood level. But the highest water level that night rose more than three meters above the normal highest high tide. Most of the dangerous storm attacks almost always came from the northwest and the dikes on the north and west sides were therefore heavier than those on the south and east sides of the islands. Now the sea was so high, however, that the water poured over the dike crown, especially on the low side, and hollowed out the dikes from the inside. The above map with dyke breaches in 1953 shows that most breaches took place on the south side of the islands. In many places, breakthroughs at harbors were caused by the collapse of the denominations. In most cases, directly behind the denominations was a village or a residential core, as a result of which a breakthrough there had serious consequences. The first night attack by the sea caused breakthroughs in many places and after an ebb on Sunday afternoon, which was also higher than normal high tide in most places, the water came up again.
In most cases it was not possible in time to close the holes that had already formed in the dikes; there were simply too many and, due to the failure of the means of communication, they had no overview of the scale of the disaster. The access roads to the somewhat more remote dyke holes had also become virtually impassable. The second flood of Sunday afternoon widened and deepened the breakthroughs and again large amounts of water flowed into the polders. The water level in the flooded area rose very quickly. Many people mistakenly believed that the worst was already over, resulting in the most victims that afternoon.
That same day, massive aid was immediately launched. Boats came and went to save people, radio amateurs helped with communication. Fishermen with their ships from all over the Netherlands offered assistance, students helped to strengthen the dikes. The government deployed soldiers to assist with the evacuation and dyke reinforcements. Help also came from abroad. Repairs started immediately after the disaster. These activities can be divided into three stages. The recovery of the first weeks, in which with sandbags, boats sailed into dikes, sinkings of rice wood structures, coffin dams and the like were tried to save what could be saved. With the help of amphibious craft and helicopters, thousands of sandbags were dropped and people and material transported.
In the second phase, the medium-sized dyke holes were repaired by professional contractors. Of the 67 flow holes in total (holes that were so deep that the water from the flooded polder was also connected to the outside water during low tide), 58 were closed in the first three months after the disaster. In the third phase, the dyke holes still present in the area were closed. The first major caisson closure was on February 28, 1953 near Oudenhoorn along the Haringvliet. The south side of South Beveland was badly damaged, with the biggest hole being the breach in the Kruiningse ferry harbor. This hole was closed on July 24 with a huge caisson. Then the last dike breaches were repaired and on November 7 the Dutch flag could be hoisted because all dikes were closed. A total of 1,835 were killed. After this major disaster, the Dutch government drew up a plan called the Delta Works . In the end, the Delta Works were not completed until almost 45 years later, with the opening of the Maeslantkering in 1997 in the Nieuwe Waterweg in Rotterdam .