Feature: The great flood of 1953

Article by Anne van Arragon Hutten
Dead cattle and hogs await pick-up. The lettering on the boat translates as: 'contaminated cadaver transportation'.

Dead cattle and hogs await pick-up. The lettering on the boat translates as: ‘contaminated cadaver transportation’.

Among Holland’s more traumatic collective memories is that of De Ramp (The Disaster), the great flood which crashed through protective dikes and submerged farmland, hamlets, towns, and cities. No one used the word tsunami back then, but survivors spoke of a ten-foot-high wave that rolled inexorably across the polder land, destroying a large part of what it encountered. Much of the stricken territory consisted of islands, already somewhat isolated from the mainland, and the flood destroyed what few communication systems were left. Some islands were cut off entirely for days before rescuers made their way inland on vessels ranging from the fishing fleet to rowboats.

This flood, the worst in modern Dutch history, occurred during the night of January 31 – February 1, 1953. Hurricane force winds from the northwest drove an exceptionally high spring tide to launch an unprecedented assault on the man-made constructions protecting parts of the provinces of South Holland, Zeeland, and Brabant. All along the dike people stood and watched the rising water, relentlessly climbing ever higher. Wherever a weak spot in the dike was found, sandbags were brought in by the truckload and packed in dense formation to prevent flooding. In the end it was not enough, and the dikes gave way. The bulk of them broke between three and six a.m. while the population was asleep.

An area as large as the entire province of Zeeland was flooded. 1836 People died, and 72,000 others were forced to leave their homes. 500,000 acres of land were flooded. Field crops were destroyed on 13.7% of the total arable land of The Netherlands. This included almost a quarter of the country’s wheat, slightly more of the barley, 37% of the flax, and over half of the onions grown nationwide. The polders were immensely productive, and this former sea floor was level and easy to till. This, of course, also meant that the floodwaters encountered few real barriers once the dikes had been breached. Along with the human toll, some 25,000 dairy cows drowned, 1500 work horses, half the national hog count, and 100,000 hens.

The statistics fail to do justice to the enormity of this flood, which caught the entire polder population unawares. When the sea is fifteen to twenty feet higher than the land on the other side of the dike, and that dike breaks, all hell breaks loose. There were farmers in the affected area who tried for a few desperate minutes to untie their cattle and horses from the stalls so that they would have some small chance of survival, but by the time they fought their way back to the house the icy water was shoulder-high. Those in the house might have had time to get out of bed only to step in several inches of water. Some reports state that the water rose fifteen to twenty feet in a mere fifteen minutes. People sought refuge upstairs only to have the water level rising as fast as they could climb the stairs, forcing them from the second floor onto the roof in many cases. Few were adequately dressed, and some sat on those roofs for three days without food or water before help arrived. They were the lucky ones, because they were saved.

It wasn’t only the dikes that broke. Whole rows of houses were swept away, some immediately, others crumbling one wall at a time. People who had fled upstairs for safety and then climbed out onto the roof were often swept away by the storm. Photos taken within days of the flood show towns that all but disappeared, with nothing but wreckage strewn around and a few lone walls still upright. These photos remind one in their destruction and desolation to those taken of Rotterdam after the 1940 bombing by German planes. In fact, many of the people who were hit by the flood had lost everything they owned during the war, only to see history repeat itself only eight years later. Once again they would have to start from scratch, with little but the clothes on their back and a heart full of courage.

With communications wiped out in the affected area, it took some hours before the rest of Holland knew what had happened. Even then it was hard to believe how dire the situation actually was. Dikes had broken before, but this was 1953 and modern dikes were thought to be strong. Eventually word did get out, and was spread to the rest of Europe and the world. Emergency help was needed, and it soon began to arrive.

Stories of survival

As with any disaster, members of the media came to report on what was happening. They seem to have been all but overwhelmed by the dreadful stories they heard from survivors. Among those who came to record what had happened was the entire editorial staff of De Spiegel, a now defunct weekly magazine. They spoke with newly rescued survivors. Then, in four consecutive issues, they tried to portray the horror of that dreadful night when the dikes broke.

One man told of not being able to enter his house anymore as the water had risen too high. But it was situated close to a dike that still held, and on the dike was a big pile of straw bales. He managed to toss the bales into the water between house and dike, a narrow  space that was nevertheless too wide to jump. Straw is composed of hollow stalks and is therefore quite buoyant – for a while. With the water level being close to the upstairs windows, the straw bales formed a primitive, desperate sort of floating bridge, bobbing and swirling in the waters. The man’s seventeen-year-old son slid a steel spring mattress out of the window to add some slight cohesion to the structure. Eight children came out across those bales of straw, jumping from bale to bale as the water heaved and tossed, their father grabbing them as they reached the dike. The mother stood at the window with the baby in her arms, afraid to take the chance. ‘Throw it!’ yelled her husband over the howl of wind and water, and she finally did throw the baby, and he caught it, and she made it too. A family with nine children, all safe, after much cold, wet trudging over a muddy dike. I’m so rich! said that farmer, whose livestock was all dead, his buildings and crops ruined, his land flooded.

I don’t know how those reporters could stand listening to one such story after another. Too often not everyone in the family had been saved. Too often a man or woman sat alone, too stunned by their losses to speak. But the reporters hitched rides on army vehicles, rowboats, even on Ducks, amphibious American vehicles being used in the rescue efforts, and visited the evacuation centers. And after hearing the stories and listening to the sobs they made it back to their offices and wrote cohesive reports and developed their photos so that the rest of the country might know how bad it had been, and how badly help was needed. They wrote of fathers who saw their wives and children torn away by the water’s force. Children who were the only survivors in their families. Two babies born amidst the chaos and desperation, only to drown that same night. Amazing feats of bravery, where rescuers headed out on the stormy waters in anything that would float, risking their own lives.

The army was dispatched to save what was left of the dikes. Many thousands of sandbags were placed in an effort to prevent further breaks, with human chains passing them along before slapping them down on eroding sections. Soldiers helped transport old men and women, mothers with young children, and anyone needing extra consideration. Help came from England, Belgium, France, the USA, and other countries. Airplanes dropped food on towns isolated by the water. Rubber dinghies were dropped near farmhouses where survivors might yet be clinging to crumbling buildings. Helicopters plucked survivors from their drenched perches. One old man told of how he had fled to his neighbor’s house, but knowing his wife was home alone he headed out across the turbulent water on a wooden door. His wife told how she had seen him slide off the door into the frigid water, but he climbed back on and somehow got back to her. Together they were eventually rescued.

People trudged along the remaining dikes with a few belongings tied up in a bed sheet, or leading a cow by a rope. All looked for higher ground, which is in short supply in The Netherlands at the best of times.

Those who steered fragile watercraft into the polders had to cross streets and barbed wire fences and sharp steel posts jutting unexpectedly from the murky waters. Rubber dinghies were especially vulnerable under these conditions. Rescuers encountered the swollen carcasses of cows and pigs, horses and sheep. They came across human bodies as well, and sometimes had to ignore them until the last of the survivors had been plucked from floating beams, roofs, and trees.

Every member of the royal family was involved in offering comfort to their stricken nation. Even Princess Wilhelmina, the much-loved Queen Mother, toured churches and town halls to offer a listening ear. Along with the wave of sympathy and support that welled up across the country, a determination grew: Holland would survive, and build again.

The aftermath

The once-fertile polders were now covered in ten feet of water. It took nine months before the dikes were repaired and the work of pumping out the water and cleaning up the mess could begin. Many of the farm families would be unable to return home for well over a year. Even then, the land was white with salt residue. They returned to a scene of devastation.

When the repairs, renovations, and new construction had been done and crops were once again planted, the soil was unable to produce much for several years. The water which had flooded the land contained effluents from septic systems, cadavers, and who knew what agricultural chemicals, to name just a few possible toxins.

Among the worst losses for farmers had been the livestock, including the 25,000 dairy cows. The reason for this high number of lost cows was that they had been tied up in stalls for the winter. When the dikes broke, they simply drowned.

Until I came across four issues of De Spiegel in the late 1990s, I had given little thought to what happened with livestock killed by the flood. Reading those, and going online for more information, I found out.

Once most of the human survivors had been rescued and brought to higher ground, it wasn’t long before young farmers realized what they were up against. Just think: twenty-five thousand dead cows, underwater, decomposing. How long before putrefaction sets in, even in the icy sea water of early February? How long before this spreads disease throughout the region?

And so it was within days of the flood that young men, mostly young farmers but also army personnel, fought their way back to the flooded barns, ideally by motorboat, but the situation remained far from ideal for a long time. Few, if any, of these young men were outfitted with a diving suit. Arriving at a barn they might find the water level halfway up the barn windows. In farm overalls, boots, and a tuque, they had to lever themselves out of the boat and clamber through a window, often ducking underwater to do so; then surface in the air pocket against the stable’s ceiling, feel their way through cold foul water and with a sharp knife cut the rope by which each dead cow was tied. And that was only the beginning.

Each swollen cadaver had to be maneuvered out of a window or broken door somehow, and attached to the boat via a rope. As each cow was wrestled out it had to be connected to the previous one with another piece of rope or chain. One photo shows a small motorboat towing a whole line of cadavers to a place where they could be incinerated.

The whole procedure defies description. What kind of young men were these, whose strong sense of duty compelled them to carry out this intensely risky, miserably cold work? Today’s news reports would call them heroes, but in 1953 they were simply doing what had to be done. They disregarded submersion in icy, fouled sea water; they ignored hunger and fatigue; they refused to think of lost family members, until all 25,000 dead cows had been removed from their stalls.

It’s no wonder that these young men went on to reclaim the land, rebuild the soil, and stubbornly persist in planting crops that initially refused to thrive. These were not men who would give up. Given enough time, they once again replaced scenes of devastation with pastoral beauty. And like Canada’s war veterans, they must have chosen as their slogan the phrase ‘Never again!’

The Delta Works were begun shortly after the disaster. Plans had been underway to strengthen the system of coastal defenses even before the flood, but the war and its impoverished aftermath had prevented implementation. Now work got underway, with enormous dams shutting off the flow of water between some islands, dikes raised and strengthened, huge breakwaters put into place. Allowances had to be made for ship traffic in such bodies of water as the Westerschelde, which provides access to some of Belgium’s harbors. Even this gigantic Deltaworks project cannot, however, guarantee the safety of a large territory that’s below sea level in an age of climate change and higher water levels. Holland’s great rivers: the Rhine, the Waal, the Merwede, the Scheldt, the Lek, are all subject to rising waters. New solutions continue to be sought, as in the broadening of river beds to accommodate more water, a ban on building on river deltas, and the protection of vulnerable wetlands. The Dutch have fought the Water Wolf, as they call their ancient enemy, for centuries. One wonders how long they can keep up the battle.


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Posted by on Jan 28 2013. Filed under History, Society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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