North Sea flood of 1953
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|Date||31 January – 1 February 1953|
|Location||Netherlands, Belgium, United Kingdom|
|Property damage||9% of total Dutch farmland flooded, 30,000 animals drowned, 47,300 buildings damaged of which 10,000 destroyed|
The 1953 North Sea flood was a major flood caused by a heavy storm surge that struck the Netherlands, north-west Belgium, England and Scotland. Most sea defences facing the surge were overwhelmed, causing extensive flooding.
The storm and flooding occurred at the end of Saturday, 31 January 1953 and morning of the next day. A combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm over the North Sea caused a storm tide. The combination of wind, high tide, and low pressure caused the sea to flood land up to 5.6 metres (18.4 ft) above mean sea level.
In the Netherlands 20% of the land was below mean sea level (subsequently with the expansion of Flevoland this proportion has increased); the next-highest 30% sat at less than 1 metre (3.3 ft) above sea level. Such land relies heavily on sea defences and was worst affected, recording 1,836 deaths and widespread damage. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern province of Zeeland.
Nineteen were killed in eastern Scotland.
More than 230 deaths occurred on seacraft along Northern European coasts as well as on ships in deeper waters of the North Sea. The ferry MV Princess Victoria sank in the North Channel east of Belfast with 133 fatalities, and many fishing trawlers sank. Nine small vessels foundered in the seas around the British Isles with the loss of all hands; these included the Swedish steamer Aspo (22 crew lost), the British steamer Yewvalley (12 crew lost), the British trawlers Sheldon (14 crew lost), Michael Griffith (13 crew lost) and Guava (eleven crew lost), the Dutch motor vessels Salland (nine crew lost) and Westland (eight crew lost), the Dutch trawler Catharina Duyvis (16 crew lost), and the Belgian trawler Leopold Nera (five crew lost).
Realising that such infrequent events could reoccur, the Netherlands and the UK carried out large studies on strengthening of coastal defences. The Netherlands developed the Delta Works, an extensive system of dams and storm surge barriers. The UK constructed storm surge barriers on the Thames Estuary and on the Hull where it meets the Humber Estuary.
|"Eerste beelden van de stormramp" [First images of the storm] parts 1, 2 & 3 – Polygoon newsreel, 1–2 February 1953. Collection of Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. 1953 was the first time video was able to record the aftermath of a major flood.|
On the night of 31 January – 1 February 1953, many dykes in the province of Zeeland, the southern parts of the province of South Holland and the northwestern parts of the province of North Brabant proved unable to resist the combination of spring tide and a northwesterly storm. On both the islands and the mainland, large areas of the country were flooded. Many people still commemorate the dead on 1 February.
The Rijkswaterstaat had warned about the risk of a flood. At the time of the flood, none of the local radio stations broadcast at night, and many of the smaller weather stations operated only during the day. As a result, the warnings of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) did not penetrate the flood-threatened area in time. People were unable to prepare for the impending flood. The disaster struck on a Saturday night, and hence many government and emergency offices in the affected area were not staffed.
As telephone and telegraph networks were disrupted by flood damage, amateur radio operators went into the affected areas with their equipment to form a voluntary emergency radio network. These radio amateurs provided radio communications for 10 days and nights, and were the only people able to maintain contact from affected areas with the outside world.
The Zeeland dykes were breached in 67 locations. Large parts of South Holland, Zeeland and North Brabant were inundated. In North Holland only one polder was flooded. The most extensive flooding occurred on the islands of Schouwen-Duiveland, Tholen, Sint Philipsland, Goeree-Overflakkee, the Hoeksche Waard, Voorne-Putten and Alblasserwaard. Parts of the islands of Zuid-Beveland, Noord-Beveland, IJsselmonde, Pernis, Rozenburg, Walcheren and Land van Altena were flooded, as well as parts of the areas around Willemstad, Nieuw-Vossemeer and parts of Zeelandic Flanders.
Afterward, the government formed the Delta Commission to study the causes and effects of the floods. They estimated that flooding killed 1,835 people and forced the emergency evacuation of 70,000 more. Floods covered 9% of Dutch farmland, and sea water flooded 1,365 km2 (527 sq mi) of land. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned, and 47,300 buildings were damaged, of which 10,000 had to be taken down (or were swept away). The total damage is estimated at 1 billion Dutch guilders.
Near flooding of other parts
The Schielands Hoge Zeedijk (Schielands High Seadyke) along the river Hollandse IJssel was all that protected three million people in the provinces of North and South Holland from flooding. A section of this dyke, known as the Groenendijk, was not reinforced with stone revetments. The water level was just below the crest and the seaward slope was weak.
Volunteers worked to reinforce this stretch. However, the Groenendijk began to collapse under the pressure around 5:30 am on 1 February. Seawater flooded into the deep polder. In desperation, the mayor of Nieuwerkerk commandeered the river ship de Twee Gebroeders (The Two Brothers) and ordered the owner to plug the hole in the dyke by navigating the ship into it. Fearing that the ship might break through into the polder, Captain Arie Evegroen took a row boat with him. The mayor's plan was successful, as the ship was lodged firmly into the dyke, reinforcing it against failure and saving many lives.
The Afsluitdijk across the entrance of the Zuiderzee was said to have paid for its construction cost in that one night, by preventing destructive flooding around the three great meers that used to be the Zuiderzee.
Several neighbouring countries sent soldiers to assist in searching for bodies and rescuing people. The U.S. Army sent helicopters from Germany to rescue people from rooftops. Queen Juliana and Princess Beatrix visited the flooded area only a few days after. A large aid program, the National Relief Fund, was launched, and soldiers raised funds by selling pea-soup door to door. Internationally, 100,000 commemorative postcards, featuring an illustration by Eppo Doeve, were sold. A national donation program was started and there was a large amount of international aid. The Red Cross was overwhelmed by contributions, and diverted some of the funds to assist residents of Third World countries.
It was found that the flooding could have been 4 feet (1.2 m) higher; the Rijkswaterstaat's plan concerning the protection and strengthening of the dikes was accepted.  As a result, the Delta Works were authorized, an elaborate project to enable emergency closing of the mouths of most estuaries, to prevent flood surges upriver.
The North Sea flood of 1953 was the worst flood in England and Scotland of the 20th century. Over 1,600 km (990 mi) of coastline was damaged, and sea walls were breached in 1,200 places, inundating 160,000 acres (65,000 ha; 250 sq mi). Flooding forced over 30,000 people from their homes, and 24,000 properties were greatly damaged. The damage is estimated as £50 million at 1953 prices, approximately £1.2 billion at 2013 prices.
Probably the most devastating storm to affect Scotland for 500 years, the surge crossed between Orkney and Shetland. The storm generated coastal and inland hazards, including flooding, erosion, destruction of coastal defences, and widespread wind damage. Damage was throughout the country, with 19 fatalities reported. The fishing village of Crovie (then in Banffshire, now Aberdeenshire), built on a narrow strip of land along the Moray Firth coast, was abandoned by many, as large structures were swept into the sea.
The surge raced down the east coast into the mid-to-southern North Sea, where it was amplified by shallower waters.
On the north side of the Thames Estuary Canvey Island in Essex was inundated, with the loss of 58 lives. Some 41 people died at Felixstowe in Suffolk when wooden prefabricated homes in the West End of the town were flooded. Another 37 died when the seafront village of Jaywick near Clacton was flooded.
In Lincolnshire, flooding occurred from Mablethorpe to Skegness, reaching as far as 3 kilometres (2 miles) inland. Police Officers Charles Lewis and Leonard Deptford received George Medals for their part in rescue work. Lewis leapt from a police station upper window to save an elderly couple being swept away in 3 feet (1 m) floodwater, carrying them to a house across the road to safety, then continuing rescue work for hours until he found a working telephone to call for help. Deptford was off-duty at his son's party when the wall of water hit. He realised the elderly were vulnerable as the Roman bank was breached and he dragged and carried many to safety. At one house he found a bedridden elderly couple with their middle-aged daughter; in the waist-high floodwater, he lashed together oil cans to make a raft, to which he tied the couple and pulled them to safety. He carried on into day, his last rescue being a dog.
Reis Leming, a US airman, and USAF Staff Sergeant Freeman A Kilpatrick were also awarded the George Medal for rescuing respectively 27 and 18 people at South Beach, Hunstanton. At Salthouse the Victorian Randall's Folly was badly damaged, resulting in its subsequent demolition.
In south-west Essex, water overspilled the Royal Docks into Silvertown, where it drained into the sewers but flooded back in Canning Town and Tidal Basin. William Hayward, a night watchman at William Ritchie & Son, died of exposure to gas from a damaged pipe – the only fatality in London. Almost 200 people were homeless and took refuge at Canning Town Public Hall. The village of Creekmouth on Barking Creek, the mouth of the Roding, was wholly flooded by the sea surge and later demolished. Residents were relocated elsewhere in Barking.
The coastal defence of Flanders was severely damaged. Near Ostend, Knokke and Antwerp, heavy damage was done to the sea defence with local breaches. Twenty-eight people died, including musician Robert Dubois.
After the 1953 flood, governments realised that similar infrequent but devastating events were possible in the future. In the Netherlands the government conceived and constructed an ambitious flood defence system beginning in the 1960s. Called the Delta Works (Dutch: Deltawerken), it is designed to protect the estuaries of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt. The system was completed in 1998, with completion of the storm surge barrier Maeslantkering in the Nieuwe Waterweg, near Rotterdam.
In the UK, the Permanent Secretary to the Home Office, Sir Frank Newsam, coordinated the immediate efforts to defend homes, save lives and recover after the floods. After the flooding, the government made major investments in new sea defences. The Thames Barrier programme was started to secure Central London against a future storm surge; the Barrier was officially opened on 8 May 1984. A range of flood defence measures were initiated around the UK coast.
In 2013 a service was held at Chelmsford Cathedral to mark the 60th anniversary of the Great Flood, attended by Anne, Princess Royal. Acts of remembrance were also held in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.
In 2011 58 years after the flood, a service remembrance was held outside the library on Canvey Island in Essex to unveil a plaque commemorating the 58 people who lost their lives on the island.
Books, films and music
- The composition Requiem Aeternam 1953 by Douwe Eisenga was written as a commemoration of the flood.
- The composition Noye's Fludde of 1958 by Benjamin Britten evokes the memory of the North Sea flood.
- The Dutch public broadcasting foundation has made numerous documentaries about the North Sea Flood. Two have been adapted as English versions: The Greatest Storm and 1953, the Year of the Beast.
- BBC Timewatch made a documentary about the North Sea flood of 1953, called The Greatest Storm.
- An episode of the ITV series Savage Planet featured the flood.
- The 1953 floods were mentioned in detail in the drama film Flood (2007).
- In 2009 a Dutch action drama titled De Storm (The Storm) was released.
- The book The Little Ark by Jan de Hartog, published in 1953, depicted the flood. It was adapted as a film by the same name in 1972.
- The short story "The Netherlands Lives with Water", by Jim Shepard, contains a passage describing the event.
- The 1976 book Oosterschelde, windkracht 10, by Jan Terlouw is the story of the flood in Zeeland, Netherlands. The first part describes the storm, while the second part describes the later conflicts about constructing the Delta Works.
- Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978), set in Suffolk in 1959, makes many references back to the 1953 flooding.
- The 2012 non-fiction book, The Sugar Girls, by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, describes the effects of the flood in East London, and on workers at Tate & Lyle's East End factories.
- The flood and its effect upon the coastal town of Lowestoft is the subject matter of a painting by British artist Mark Burrell.
- 'The Great Tide' by Hilda Grieve (published 1959) gives a detailed description of every aspect of the flood in Essex.
- Flood control in the Netherlands
- Floods in the Netherlands
- Inundation of Walcheren
- Lists of disasters
- List of floods in Europe
- List of natural disasters in the British Isles
- List of disasters in Great Britain and Ireland by death toll
- North Sea flood of 1962
- North Sea flood of 2007
- North Sea flood of 2013
- Radio Amateurs Emergency Network
- Storm tides of the North Sea
- "The devastating Storm of 1953". The History Press. Retrieved 8 October 2022.
- Michael Griffith
- Catharina Duyvis
- Alan Villiers, Posted missing. The Story of Ships Lost without Trace in Recent Years, pp. 3 to 75
- Komen, Lizzy (31 January 2019). "The Watersnoodramp: the Dutch battle against water in moving image". Europeana (CC By-SA). Retrieved 31 January 2019.
- Ley, Willy (October 1961). "The Home-Made Land". For Your Information. Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 92–106.
- Rollema, D. (2004). "Amateur Radio Emergency Network During 1953 Flood". Proceedings of the IEEE. 92 (4): 759–762. doi:10.1109/JPROC.2004.825908. S2CID 24008591.
- 1953 east coast flood - 60 years on – Met Office, April 2013 (retrieved January 2019)
- The Flood of 1953 – The Open University OpenLearn, September 2004
- Stratton, J.M. (1969). Agricultural Records. John Baker. ISBN 978-0-212-97022-3.
- Hickey, Kieran R. (2001). "The storm of 31 January to 1 February 1953 and its impact on Scotland". Scottish Geographical Journal. 117 (4): 283–295. doi:10.1080/00369220118737129. S2CID 129865692.
- Heatherson, Liam (1 December 2013). "Remembering the 1953 Floods on Canvey". Beyond the Point. Retrieved 18 March 2022.
- "Disaster victims to be remembered on floods tragedy anniversary". Ipswich Star. 4 January 2018. Retrieved 9 January 2018.
- Grieve, Hilda (1959). The GreatTide: The Story of the 1953 Flood Disaster in Essex. Essex County Council.
- "Obituaries:Reis Leming". Daily Telegraph. 18 November 2012. Retrieved 18 November 2012.
- "Tributes paid to forgotten hero, Freeman Kilpatrick, who saved lives in Hunstanton in 1953 floods". 25 September 2014.
- "Onesiphorus's Wealth and Folly!". Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!. 23 August 2020. Retrieved 23 May 2021.
- Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi (2012). The Sugar Girls. Collins. p. 191. ISBN 978-0-00-744847-0.
- "The Great Flood of 1953". Creekmouth Preservation Society. 31 January 1953. Retrieved 15 April 2020.
- "1953 east coast flood – 60 years on". Met Office. Retrieved 23 September 2014.
- "Commemoration". BBC. Retrieved 3 February 2013.
- Text on the blue plaque on the wall of the Heritage Centre in Leigh-on-Sea.
- "BBC Radio Lincolnshire - Melvyn in the Morning, 17/10/2012, East Coast Floods - Melvyn with John Monk in Sutton on Sea". BBC. Retrieved 18 March 2022.
- "Canvey Island 1953 Flood Memorial in Canvey Island, Essex - Find a Grave Cemetery". www.findagrave.com. Retrieved 18 March 2022.
- "BASS 2010: Jim Shepard, "The Netherlands Lives With Water" | A Just Recompense". Sloopie72.wordpress.com. 18 April 2011. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
- "Google Drive Viewer". Retrieved 19 March 2014.
- nl:Oosterschelde; Windkracht 10
- Kelman, Ilan. Assessment of UK deaths, 1953; study made for CURBE (Cambridge University Centre for Risk in the Built Environment)
- Lamb, H.H. and Frydendahl, Knud (1991). Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-37522-1
- Instituut voor Sociaal Onderzoek van het Nederlandse Volk, U.S. National Research Council. Committee on Disaster Studies (1955). Studies in Holland flood disaster 1953. Four volumes.
 RAF Sculthorpe Heritage Centre 1953 Floods
- BBC — future flood risk
- The Flood of 1953 in the Netherlands Archived 2 May 2019 at the Wayback Machine. Report on DeltaWorks.org; includes animations, images and video
- 1953 Floods
- Suffolk under water — BBC Suffolk
- LIFE Magazine article (Feb. 16, 1953)
- Dutch newsreel, on Pathe site
- Pathe newsreel, images of Netherlands Archived 5 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine
- Pathe newsreel, images of Netherlands[permanent dead link]
- Pathe newsreel, images of Canvey[permanent dead link]
- Pathe newsreel, evacuation in Lincolnshire[permanent dead link]