The flood of 1953

It is the night of Saturday 31 January and the early hours of the morning of Sunday 1 February 1953. Two days after the full moon. The weather forecasts predict a north to northwesterly storm, wind force 11 to 12, and ‘dangerously high water levels’. The high tide due at 5 am is also a spring tide. Yet many people think that it won’t be too bad. Wrongly.

Low tide, which according to the water tables should occur at 10.30 pm, does not happen. The water levels don’t subside, but remain as they were. The hard north to northwesterly storm is pushing the water of the North Sea towards the English Channel. Even before high tide, things go wrong in many places. At 2 am, the water flows over the dikes and floodgates for the first time.

The dikes break

From 3 am onwards the dikes begin to break. In Kruiningen, Kortgene and Oude Tonge they succumb first. In Stavenisse, the sheer force of the water creates a hole in the dike of 1800 meters  in one go. But also in North Brabant, near Willemstad, Heijningen and Fijnaart, the dikes cannot resist these extreme forces of nature. Neither in the Zuid-Hollandse Hoeksche Waard, in ‘s Gravendeel, Strijen and Numansdorp.

The Schieland Hoge Zeedijk, the dike between Schiedam and Gouda along the Hollandsche IJssel, stays intact, but the Groenendijk breaches. The sea water makes its way towards the lower areas of South Holland. The mayor of Nieuwerkerk aan de IJssel orders the captain of De Twee Gebroeders to sail his ship into the hole in the dike. The plan succeeds. The ship anchors itself in the leftover dike.

Affected areas The flood of 1953 – Animation Frédérik Ruys

Schouwen-Duiveland is largely flooded. Only the dune area on the west of the island and a few polders nearby Zonnemaire remain dry. The same applies to Goeree-Overflakkee, where only the dunes and some areas around Melissant and Dirksland are spared from flooding.

The water that has been pushed up by the north to northwesterly storm leaves a trail of devastation. Houses collapse and are dragged along by the current. The waxing water even destroys complete hamlets, like Schuring near Numansdorp and Capelle near Ouwerkerk, which are both swept away. In Colijnsplaat a loose barge brings salvation. Just as the floodgates threaten to collapse, the ship strands and acts as a breakwater.

Groot gat in de dijk. Met veel kracht stort het water zich de polders in.

Expanse of water

When daylight breaks on Sunday 1 February 1953, the full extent of the disaster becomes visible. “I looked out over an incredibly large expanse of water”, says an eyewitness. Dotted about you can still see a few rooftops, a treetop or a crumbled dike. Apart from that, there is  water. Initially the water levels drop, thanks to it becoming ebb tide again. People use that moment to flee to a higher spot. Individual rescue operations get under way. Locals travel along the houses by boat to pick up people and drop them off at safer places.Large-scale rescue operations organised from outside the affected areas are not yet started. Simply because people in the rest of The Netherlands do not know exactly what has happened in the southwest of the country. That Schouwen-Duiveland, Goeree-Overflakkee and Tholen are almost completely under water is still an unknown fact.

Stories about water – Eyewitnesses of the flood

Second flood

“The worst thing was Sunday afternoon, when high tide came in again,” according to an eyewitness. Water levels are even higher during that second spring tide than during the disaster night. For many, only one option remains: getting onto the roof. Many houses that have remained intact during the night are collapsing during the second flood. The water lifts  roofs of their walls.People who survived the disaster night drown as a result of the second flood. Nearing 5 pm it’s already getting dark. Thousands of people in the disaster stricken area go wet, cold, thirsty and frightened into that second night. On attics, on roofs, crammed together on leftover dikes or in  houses on higher ground.

Emergency transmitter

In the meanwhile, employees of local telephone exchanges are desperately trying to seek help. They keep trying until the moment the water destroys the telephone lines and telephone contact with the rest of The Netherlands is no longer possible. The voice of the operators is not heard.A student who spends the weekend with his parents on Schouwen-Duiveland and the owner of a wireless shop in Zierikzee join forces. Together they build a simple transmitter and send out emergency signals. Later it appears that those signals of distress reached as far as Italy. The voice of the transmitter is heard.Amateur radio operators from all over the country arrive with portable equipment to the disaster area to help open up the isolated regions and to pass on offers of help. The distress signals from the Zierikzeese radio operators are also received in Zwijndrecht and Willemstad. On 1 February, at around 04.30 am, both municipalities send out a telex message to the world about the emergency situation in the south-west of The Netherlands. The Netherlands is slowly becoming aware of the scale of the flood disaster. In the days after the disaster, newspapers print special editions and the radio and the news reports in the cinemas put out extra broadcasts.