Urk fishermen

The first people taking action after hearing the news are fishermen from Urk. A number of ships from their fleet have dropped  anchor near Breskens. At the first radio reports about the flood disaster they travel by bus to Breskens on Sunday 1 February, and that same evening – while the storm is still raging – they sail to the flooded land of Schouwen-Duiveland and Goeree-Overflakkee.

The Urk fishermen make contact with Radio Scheveningen and inform the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, the navy and the Red Cross. With small boats, the men, soon joined by fishermen from Zierikzee and Yerseke, navigate through the holes in the dikes and rescue people that are stuck on roofs.

On Monday afternoon the first reconnaissance aircraft flies over Schouwen-Duiveland and the first relief supplies are dropped near Sommelsdijk on Goeree-Overflakkee. On Monday evening, then Prime Minister Drees addresses the nation on the radio. On Thursday, February 5, everyone is evacuated and brought to safety. On February 8 – a day of national mourning – Queen Juliana gives a speech.

Field kitchens

The army, the navy and the air force try with all their might to save  what can be saved. While the navy is evacuating people with barges and removing bodies from the water, people from the army quickly set up emergency hospitals and field kitchens. The army’s liaison department  is working 24 hours a day to establish contact with the most remote places. The soldiers are divided over the islands. The artillerymen take care of Tholen, the military engineers come to the rescue of Goeree-Overflakkee and the commandos start work on Schouwen-Duiveland. Army reserve soldiers  are deployed  to protect people against potential looting. More than 4000 soldiers are deployed on Sunday 1 February alone. The supply of provisions, medicines and rescue materials is done by air. In addition to the only Dutch military helicopter at that time – the Sikorsky S-51 ‘Jezebel’ – air force and navy planes are also deployed. The air force bases in Gilze-Rijen, Valkenburg and Woensdrecht are quickly opened up to airplanes and helicopters from America, England, Switzerland, Belgium and France. The air force fleet eventually ends up containing 200 aircraft and 46 helicopters.

Hulp militairen Watersnoodramp
Hulp militairen

Relief workers deeply impressed

In the Army Courier of 1953: ,, The part of Zuid-Beveland that we reached first appeared like an oasis in the desert. Green grass, canals and ditches, people and animals, in short, normal life. Up till the railroad that has been crushed like a toy, telegraph poles have been smashed over the top of it like matchsticks. Then water and the occasional broken dike. ”

“We flew back. Straight across Zeeland, Pernis, lights, busy doing its business and … no water. The moon arose, at least that was what they said. We did not see it and hardly noticed our landing at Valkenburg. Because we had seen Zeeland and the South Holland islands. It was so quiet and it seemed so peaceful, but we knew that this was deceptive. Deeply impressed we stepped out of the plane. ”

Clothing and beds

In the areas adjacent to the disaster area, schools and community centres are being prepared to accommodate evacuees. The Red Cross collects clothes, beds and medicines for the victims who have lost everything. The National Disaster Fund raises money under the direction of Prince Bernhard. That ultimately yields 137.800.000 guilders, an enormous  amount in that time. This money is used, among other things, to compensate for ‘household damage’ and widows ‘and orphans’ benefits. Exactly how to distribute the money isn’t all that straightforward. Should every victim receive the same amount or not? Some mayors are afraid of wastefulness. Eventually, it is decided that compensation payments will be divided into five tiers and that the payments will be made in cash.

The damage is determined by surveyors. That does not always run smoothly. Some people complain that damaged items  are still deemed ‘fit-for-purpose’ by the esteemed lady and gentleman surveyors  and are therefore not reimbursed. There are also people who feel that they are compensating too generously.  A family that has lost everything in the flood is receiving, on average, a compensation of six thousand guilders.

Hulp Watersnoodramp
Hulp Watersnoodramp


Only when the water in the flooded areas has subsided, does it become clear how extensive the damage is. There is driftwood and debris from collapsed houses everywhere and the houses that are still standing are often full of mud, up to a height of 6ft or more. The Dutch Federation of Female Volunteers rolls up its sleeves and starts cleaning. Volunteers come from all over the Netherlands. They are divided up into the ‘mud and scrub teams’ .

Other groups of women are forming cooking teams to support the cleaners and, in the summer, groups of scouts and pupils from secondary schools join them  to help with the cleaning up. Foreign students also come to the rescue. The most horrible work is done by the cadaver and dead body teams. They clean up dead animals and try to identify as many human remains as possible.

Gift houses

Help arrives from abroad as well. Aid supplies, food, manpower and money come from all corners of the world. Special is a gift from Norway, Sweden and Denmark. They send  wooden prefab houses. A large part of these homes is still inhabited to this day. Germany sends 200 cuddly toys, other toys and chocolate. Ten typewriters, 10 outboard motors, 2500 blankets and 415 plastic toys arrive from Italy.

Very different are the relief supplies from Liechtenstein: 364 kilos of potatoes. Austria sends 6 crates of thermos flasks, 75.000 kilos of Portland cement and 13 crates of chocolate and sweets.  Switzerland donates 3000 handkerchiefs and 1000 pillows and mattresses. The Swiss Youth Red Cross donates 2400 school bags. These are distributed to pupils in Nieuw-Vossemeer, Stavenisse, Middelharnis and Zierikzee.

Food comes from Algiers and South Africa sends 180 bottles of port. Indonesia contributes 2000 sandbags and the Red Crescent donates 9,000 kilos of rice. Israel sends 49 spectacle frames and 6500 crates of oranges. From Suriname,  10 tonnes of sugar and 75 bales of coconuts arrive and Turkey sends blankets. Footwear comes from New Zealand and more than 1000 kilos of coffee from Jamaica. America and Canada send goods worth millions of guilders.