North Sea flood of 1953

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Natural Disasters

The North Sea flood of 1953 and the associated storm combined to create a major natural disaster which affected the coastlines of the Netherlands and England on the night of 31 January 1953 – 1 February 1953. Belgium, Denmark and France were also affected by flooding and storm damage.

A combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm caused a storm tide, a tidal surge of the North Sea up to 3.36 m, which overwhelmed sea defences and caused extensive flooding.

Officially, 1,835 people were killed in the Netherlands, mostly in the south-western province of Zeeland. 307 were killed in the United Kingdom, in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

Further loss of life exceeding 230 occurred on watercraft along Northern European coasts as well as in deeper waters of the North Sea; the ferry MV Princess Victoria was lost at sea in the North Channel with 132 fatalities, and many trawlers sank.

North Sea flood in the Netherlands

In the night of 31 January/ 1 February 1953 many dikes in the provinces of Zeeland, Zuid-Holland and Noord-Brabant proved not to be resistant to the combination of spring tide and a northwesterly storm. On both the islands and the mainland large areas of country were completely flooded with water. Flooding of islands and polders killed 1,835 people and forced the emergency evacuation of 70,000 more. An estimated 10,000 animals drowned, and 4,500 buildings were destroyed. Floods covered 9% of Dutch farmland, and sea water inundated 2,000 km² (800 mi²) of polders. Total damage was estimated at 895 million Dutch guilders. Many people still commemorate the dead on February 1st.


At the time of the disaster, none of the local radio stations broadcast at night, and many of the smaller weather stations operated only during the day, as a result of which the warnings of the KNMI did not penetrate the calamity area in time. People did not receive warning and were consequently unable to prepare for the impending flood. Telephone and telegraph networks were disrupted, and within hours amateur radio operators went in to the affected areas with their home-made radio equipment to form a voluntary emergency radio network. These well-organized radio amateurs worked tirelessly, providing radio communications for 10 days and nights, and were the only people maintaining contact with the outside world. In addition to the disaster happening during the night, it was Saturday night. As a result, many offices in the calamity area were unmanned.

Resulting damage

The floods put large parts of Zuid-Holland, Zeeland and Noord-Brabant under water. At Cadzand water came over the dike, and at Kruiningen the water drove in through the ferry dock coupure which had been left open. In a very short time the Kruiningerpolder (14 km²) was completely flooded. Water rushed up on the north side of Dordrecht. In Rotterdam a record water height was measured. Parts of Rotterdam-Zuid on the island of IJsselmonde were also flooded, because the water came over the quays. One person, who lived in a cellar and was asleep, drowned there. In Stellendam water reached the attics of the houses. On the island of Roozenburg the dikes were broken through. Veere stood under water. The dikes at Wolphaartsdijk and Ossenisse were breached. The Nieuwerkerkpolder and Suzannapolder flooded. At Rammekens breaches were knocked in the dike. Reigerspolder and parts of Zuid-Beveland were under water. Rilland-Bath was isolated. In Zeeuws-Vlaanderen two dikes broke. Stavenisse and Middelburg were under water. The islands of Tiengemeten and Ooltgensplaat became completely submerged; on the Hoofdplaat the sleeper dike was broken through. In one night, 1,750 km² of country changed into a dead plain of water.

The Groenendijk

After the collapse of numerous seawalls and dikes, the Schielandse Hoge Zeedijk dike along the river Hollandse IJssel was all that remained to protect three million people in the provinces of South and North Holland from the ravaging effects of the advancing storm. For a while, the dike stopped the waters from moving into Holland. A section of this dike, known as the Groenendijk, was not reinforced with stone. Despite the storm, volunteers worked to reinforce this stretch.

Around 5:30 am on 1 February, the Groenendijk collapsed under the immense pressure. The seawater broke through and started moving into the South Holland province. 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 dike by navigating the ship into it. Fearing that the ship may break through and dive into the polder, captain Arie Evegroen took a row boat with him. The mayor's plan turned out to be successful, as the ship lodged itself firmly into the dike, sparing both provinces. If the ship had not been sailed into into the dike, the disastrous death toll of 1,835 could have been far bigger. This version of events is questioned in a new film by Jos de Putter - Verloren Land (Lost Land).


Queen Juliana and Princess Beatrix visited the calamity area. The U.S. Army sent helicopters to rescue people from their rooftops. The French government sent engineering troops. A large rural aid action came on apace, supported by the radio. Purses were opened and there was a large amount of international aid. Politically, the disaster prompted discussions concerning the protection and strengthening of the dikes, eventually leading to the Delta Works, an elaborate project also involving the closing off of some sea inlets.

North Sea flood in the United Kingdom

The North Sea flood of 1953 was one of the most devastating natural disasters ever recorded in the UK. Over 1,600 km of coastline was damaged, and sea walls were breached, inundating 1,000 km². Flooding forced 30,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, and 24,000 properties were seriously damaged.

In individual incidents, 38 died at Felixstowe in Suffolk when wooden prefabricated homes in the West End area of the town were flooded. In Essex, Canvey Island was inundated with the loss of 58 lives and another 37 died when the seafront village of Jaywick near Clacton was flooded.

The total death toll on land in the UK is estimated at 307. The total death toll at sea for the UK, including the Princess Victoria, is estimated at 224.


In the Netherlands, an ambitious flood defence system was conceived and deployed, called the Delta Works (Dutch: Deltawerken), designed to protect the estuary of Rhine and Meuse. The works were completed in 1998, upon completion of the storm surge barrier, Maeslantkering, in the Nieuwe waterweg, near Rotterdam.

In the UK, major investments were made in new sea defences, and the Thames Barrier programme was started to secure central London against a future storm surge.

The future

The threat of another flood on the scale of 1953 remains potent, since the combination of events generating a massive storm surge could recur in normal climatic timescales. In addition, two risk factors could increase the likelihood, or the severity, of another incident. Firstly, the western part of the Netherlands and the south-eastern part of the UK are gradually settling lower as other parts lift higher due to isostatic rebound after the disappearance of the glacial sheet from the last ice age. Secondly, sea levels are rising as a result of climate change, which may also cause more frequent and more severe storms.

Flood barriers, improved weather forecasting, modern communications and sophisticated emergency services may help to reduce the potential loss of life from a future flood. However, this must be balanced by the impact of higher population densities, intensive building in coastal areas and, for the UK, by the decay of coastal defences since the 1950s improvements.

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