By Elke Weesjes
Flooded regions Southwest Netherlands. 1953
During the weekend of Saturday, January 31, 1953, hurricane force winds over the North Sea generated a tremendous storm surge that flooded the low-lying coastal regions of the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. The peak high waters hit the coast in the early morning hours, surprising many people in their sleep. In the Netherlands, a country where 75 percent of the land lies either below or less than 3 percent above sea level, nearly 2000 people lost their lives. In the United Kingdom and Belgium, casualties were 307 and 22, respectively (Gerritsen, 2005).
Along the southern coast of the Netherlands, three sediment-laden rivers, the Rijn, Maas, and Schelde created a massive system of islands and waterways in the gaps between coastal dunes. Over time, many of these small, vulnerable islands merged into larger ones that were protected by dikes that were—and still are—managed by local water boards.
The first water boards, set up to maintain the integrity of water defenses around local polders, were founded as early as the 13th century and are among the oldest forms of local government in the Netherlands. Under French rule, the Rijkswaterstaat (Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management) was mandated in 1798 to centralize water control. Local water boards, however, refused to give up their autonomy and the Rijkswaterstaat ended up working alongside the water boards. Gradually the boards began to merge and their numbers declined. At the time of the North Sea Flood there were around 2,700 boards in the Netherlands, 200 of which were in the disaster-stricken region (Raadschelders and Toonen, 1993).
Studies conducted in 1937 by the Rijkswaterstaat indicated that sea defenses in the southwest river delta were inadequate to withstand a major storm surge. The study proposed to dam all the river mouths and sea inlets to shorten the coast and become less reliant on sea dikes. However, because of the scale of the project and the interruption of the World War II, construction was delayed. By 1953, only two river mouths had been closed and the region still fully relied on dikes for protection (Deltawerken, 2004).
At the time of the flood, many of these dikes were in bad shape. They were not high enough and were eroding. Further erosion was caused by a military defense system, which built bunkers into the dikes. In addition, machine-gun units and manholes were dug, and piping was laid through the dikes. When the 1953 flood hit, these weak spots, which hadn’t been filled properly, were the locations where the dikes first gave way. In all, there were some 150 breaches in sea dikes, the country’s primary sea defense, which resulted in the inundation of 350,000 acres. As a result, 1836 people died, tens of thousands of livestock perished, and some 100,000 people were evacuated. The damage to buildings, dykes, and other infrastructure was enormous.
Thirty years before the flood, the Stormvloedwaarschuwingsdienst (SVSD), a storm tide warning service was created. The SVSD, which collaborates with the Koninklijk Nederlands Meterologisch Instituut or KNMI (Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute) and the Rijkswaterstaat, is activated when the weather forecasts point to expected high water-levels. After the KNMI noted the development of stormy weather on Friday January 30, 1953 it alerted the SVSD, which sent the first warning telegrams on Saturday at 11 a.m. and, as well as broadcasting radio weather. Unfortunately, telegrams were only sent to authorities who had subscribed to the service. There were a mere 30 subscriptions at the time, and only one of the 200 water boards in the hardest hit region received a telegram. The radio broadcasts weren’t very effective either since the disaster happened at night, hours after radio programming went off-air. The majority of people didn’t have phones and once ferries had stopped for the day, the islands in the Southwest were completely isolated from the outside world. When the storm hit the country in the early hours of the morning, most people were sound asleep (Gerritsen, 2005).
When the storm hit the country in the early hours of the morning, most people were sound asleep
No formal disaster plans were in place and the situation soon devolved into disorder, panic, confusion, and chaos. There were, however, examples of people taking charge, mending dikes, and bringing others to safety. The following day, on February 1, the rest of the country learned of the event. After assessing the situation, national authorities began sending manpower and supplies to the disaster-stricken region. Unfortunately, the already vulnerable infrastructure was devastated and it was difficult to reach those in need. Even so, the Dutch army assisted with the evacuation of over 100,000 people and thousands of cattle. French and American military were also able to transport people and food by helicopter to and from remote areas. Thousands of others immediately began work to reconstruct and repair the dikes. Closing the dike breaches was a pressing concern since the twice-daily tides threatened to widen the breaches. The repair work was extremely complex and the authorities—aware of the many conflicting local-level decisions to be made—realized that safety could only be reestablished using a central approach. The government decided that it would fund the cost of reconstruction and that the Rijkswaterstaat would be in charge, while the local water boards would provide assistance and guidance. By November, all the breaches were closed (Gerritsen, 2005).
Only 20 days after the flood, officials, thoroughly shaken by the devastating impacts, appointed the Delta Works Committee to—quietly—research the causes of the disaster and develop measures to prevent anything like it from happening again. The committee revised some of the pre-flood projects and formulated the “Deltaplan.” The plan entailed blocking the estuary mouths of the big rivers, building dams and storm surge barriers, installing sluices and locks, and heightening and strengthening dikes. This series of constructions, christened the Deltawerken (Delta Works) was officially completed in 1997. Along with the Zuiderzee Works, Delta Works was named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of its Seven Wonders of the Modern World (Deltawerken, 2004).
Deltawerken. 2004. http://www.deltawerken.com/16 (accessed on September 24, 2015). Gerritsen, Herman. 2005. “What Happened in 1953? The Big Flood in the Netherlands in Retrospect.” Philosophical Transactions Vol. 363 Issue 1831 http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/363/1831/1271 (accessed on September 24, 2015). Raadschelders, J.C.N., Th.A.J. Toonen (eds.). 1993. Waterschappen in Nederland: een bestuurskundige verkenning van de institutionele ontwikkeling. Hilversum. Verloren b.v.