When the Dikes Broke

Voor een versie in het Nederlands van dit stuk, klik hier / For a version in Dutch of this piece, see here.

“As soon as the sun rose, he and a neighbor went out on a dinghy to try to rescue people,” my aunt tells me about my grandpa. He stops at his sister Pieternella’s house, who is trapped on the roof with her husband, Machiel, and their six children. “They flung ropes around the chimney to get everyone into the little boat.” But disaster strikes. The roof suddenly collapses, and in the swirling mass of water and mud, my grandpa’s sister and her family drown, “before his eyes.”

My grandpa’s story is harrowing yet not uncommon. Exactly seventy years ago, one of the greatest Dutch disasters of the twentieth century occurred on the night of January 31 into the early morning of February 1, 1953. A 1000-kilometer-long storm field headed straight for the Dutch coast via the North Sea. Late Saturday afternoon, the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) warned of a very severe northwesterly storm with a wind scale of 11 by telegram and radio. They announced that the treacherous combination of the storm with the spring tide–a period when the water at high tide is higher than normal–will lead to “dangerously high water.” The warning was of little use. Only about half of the population owned a radio at the time and only one area in the region, Walcheren, had subscribed to the telegram service. As a result, news of the gravity of this situation did not reach far. Most people imagined themselves to be safe and secure behind the dikes.

Weather map of February 1, 1953 at 12:00am, KNMI.
[Image description: A black and white map of the North Sea, showing weather patterns at midnight on February 1, 1953].

But when the severe northwesterly storm reached its peak in the middle of the night, the dikes no longer offered any protection. Water flowed into more than 150 places in the provinces of Zeeland, North Brabant, and South Holland. Many people were surprised by the water in their sleep. Entire families tried to get to safety by fleeing to higher ground or by climbing onto roofs. But the storm struck devastatingly, with entire houses collapsing and residents drowning or clinging to blown roofs, beams, or other driftwood in the icy cold water. Pretty much everything was swept away by the strong current. A second, even higher tidal wave followed on Sunday afternoon, claiming even more victims. The suffering was incalculable.

My grandparents, Anthonius (also known as Toon or Toontje) and Elizabeth (also called Bets) lived with their family in Oude-Tonge, one of the hardest hit villages in the disaster area. More than 310 of a total of 1836 victims died in this small village on the South Holland island of Goeree-Overflakkee. Toon and Bets owned a store with household goods on the Kaai and lived in the upstairs apartment with four children, including my aunt, then 4 years old, and my father, 11 months old. Because the property was on higher ground, my grandparents escaped relatively unscathed compared to what others had experienced.

My aunt takes a deep breath as she tries to recollect what happened seventy years ago. She indicates that she hardly has her own memories of the night of the disaster. But my aunt does remember the stories her mother told her years later. “We slept in the upstairs apartment of course,” she describes, “and we were awakened by the dike guard that the dikes had broken.”

“Water, water, the water is coming,” he yelled.

“I remember as a little girl looking out the dark window in the middle of the night and seeing a lot of water flowing onto the Kaai,” my aunt describes. Despite the fact that the water remains only about one meter high in the store, the family does not feel safe and remains concerned that it may rise further. “We were so afraid the water would come again.” My aunt also relates the powerlessness Bets felt. “At one point, mother went out on the balcony and heard people screaming in the distance,” she recounts, “that was bone chilling.” And then it “suddenly became very quiet.” This could only mean one thing: “those people drowned.”

After long, anxious hours, once it finally starts to get light, Toon, like many others, immediately sets out. Together with a neighbor he tries to rescue people who are stuck. They succeed in many cases. His own sister and her family, who lived in one of the three houses at the edge of the village, were a tragic exception. Toon heads back home after the fateful rescue attempt, shaken and dismayed. “He never wanted or was able to talk about it,” both my aunt and my father tell me.

Aerial photo of Oude-Tonge (February 1953), Nationaal Archief.
[Image description: A black and white photo showing a bird’s eye view of a village submerged in water. There are many houses, community buildings, and boats.]

Relief efforts in the disaster area were slow at first, which is not surprising considering more than 200,000 acres of land had disappeared under water and telephone lines had been washed away. Neighbors and villagers tried to support each other as best as they could. Since the apartment above the store was largely spared, my grandparents soon decided to take in relatives who had lost home and hearth, including Toon’s brother, his wife, and their ten children who had lived on the lower lying Jozefdreef. Despite the difficult circumstances, Bets tried to help as much as she could and, as my aunt describes, “wrenched open the closet to give them a helping hand.” Blankets, pillows, clothes, some food—but really there was nowhere to start. 

Only in the days that followed, did more organization and structure emerge in terms of aid, also from abroad. The Red Cross played an important role, sheltering victims, setting up emergency hospitals, and providing mattresses, blankets, and food. All of the Netherlands started collecting money and goods for the victims. Countries like Great Britain, Sweden, and Canada also sent soldiers and equipment to the disaster area.

Evacuation also followed in the first days, intended not only to bring people from the hardest hit areas to safety, but also to prevent the spread of diseases and to combat impending shortages in drinking water and food. Tens of thousands of residents were accommodated at shelters elsewhere in the country. Two days after the disaster, my grandparents and their family were taken by barge from the island to Dinteloord, then traveled through Dordrecht to the Westland, where they received shelter from a baker in Monster.

Photo from a Swedish magazine, showing Toon and Beta with their children during the evacuation (February 1953), private collection Wilma Hameeteman.
The caption in Swedish reads: “[Arti?] Hamee[t]eman evacuated with family: During the night I thought God had decided that we were supposed to leave the earth. We sang to the children, we sang and prayed, yes, we were humbly grateful.” Translation by Melina Antonia Buns.
[Image description: A black and white photo printed in a Swedish magazine, showing a man and a woman looking off to the side, with their four young children, all wearing hats and coats. The text under the photo reads: “Arti Hameelseman evakuades med familj: Pä natten trodde jag att Gud beslutat att via skulle lämna jorden. Vi sjöng för barnen, vi sjöng och bad, ja, vi är ödmjukt tacksamma.”]

Around three or four days after the evacuation, Toon returned alone to Oude-Tonge to help close the holes in the dikes, like so many other men. Together with thousands of soldiers, workers, and volunteers from home and abroad, they also started clearing large piles of wreckage and debris from destroyed homes as well as removing tens of thousands of dead animals in the areas no longer flooded. Everything is covered with a thick layer of mud. Following a nationwide call for “soap crews,” hundreds of girls and young women from all over the country flocked to the affected area to help make villages habitable again. These so-called “mud girls” work in shifts to clean homes and recover any remaining usable items.

Initially the first dikes were temporarily and provisionally repaired by hand with sandbags and flood boards, but soon tractors and machines were also used for the supply. In addition, roads, bridges, and train tracks had to be further repaired or rebuilt so that the affected areas could be reached again. They also addressed the flow holes, holes so deep that water gushed in and out of the polders day and night. Not until nine months after the disaster was the last flow hole closed with caissons at Ouwerkerk on the Zeeland island of Schouwen-Duiveland.

A group of villagers who returned to Oude-Tonge to help. Toon is sitting in the front right, in the black leather jacket. Private collection Wilma Hameeteman.
[Image description: A black and white photo of a group of men in hats, coats, and scarves, sitting indoors and drinking something as they talk to each other. There are a few women who are serving hot drinks.]
“Mud girls” from Haarlem help in Oude-Tonge (March 1953), Nationaal Archief.
[Image description: A black and white photo of a group of seven women wearing boots and walking in the water, carrying buckets and mops. Debris and houses surrounding them.]

The Red Cross continued to distribute relief items such as blankets, pillows, or mattresses, the so-called “dispensations,” for months after the disaster. When Bets and the children return to Oude-Tonge from the Westland two months after the evacuation, the district nurse advises her to also pay a visit. “Go there,” the story goes, “because your wardrobes are empty too. You have given everything to others.” Even though Bets is apprehensive, she decides to take the district nurse’s advice anyway and to just try. Yet she is dismissively waived off by one of the local volunteers. “Joe huus dat eit nie onder waeter gestaen” [“Your house has not been under water”], she tells Bets in flat dialect. Factually incorrect, but it is true that others have been harder hit. Yet it is painful that Bets herself is not helped after she tried to do good.

It was only when the water subsided and the polders pumped dry that the harsh reality of the disaster became clearly visible. Priority was given to the recovery, identification, and the burial of found human remains, mostly by military and police officers. They officially registered 1836 victims, 105 of whom were never found. In Oude-Tonge, all victims, including unidentified persons, were buried in an emergency cemetery in a stretch of dike near the village. The fact that 10 percent of the inhabitants did not survive left traces in the village, as was the case in many other places. Almost everyone knew someone who had lost a family member.

Map of the flooded areas in the Southwest of the Netherlands (1953), Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek.
[Image description: A printed, color-coded map of the southwestern parts of the Netherlands from 1953. Areas in orange indicate regions that had been flooded and the areas in light pink indicate dry regions.]

The Dutch government realized that dike management in the Netherlands needed to be tackled drastically. It had long been clear that the dikes had been weakened by long-term overdue maintenance. Long before the disaster, hydraulic engineer Johan van Veen, for example, drew attention to the fact that the dikes were too low and weak, and warned of the possible consequences. However, he was practically ignored. After the Second World War, the government gave political priority to the rapid reconstruction of the country, so no money was released for the structural improvement of the dikes.

But the great flood shook up the government. A few weeks after the disaster, the Ministry of Transport and Water Management created the so-called Delta Committee, commissioning a strategy to prevent its future recurrence. That same year, the committee came up with the Delta Plan: an extensive and ambitious project to guarantee the safety of residents in the southwest of the Netherlands and beyond by shortening the coastline and strengthening the dikes. Closing off the estuaries in the region was not only cheaper and more effective than raising all the dikes, but the salinization of valuable agricultural land could also be limited in this way. An additional advantage was that the public works between the various islands would strongly contribute to their accessibility. Once the six-kilometer Grevelingendam was completed in 1965, for instance, the island of Goeree-Overflakkee became connected to the mainland.

There were also disadvantages. People knew that the waters of the Eastern Scheldt would become fresh if this estuary were to be closed. In 1974, after fierce protests from mussel and oyster fishermen, conservationists, and other interest groups, the Dutch government decided to abandon the plan to close off the estuary completely. A political compromise followed: they would build a storm surge barrier that would open under normal conditions and close with imminent high water. Completed in 1986, the Eastern Scheldt Barrier is the largest component of the Delta Works. It is a nine-kilometer-long defense system consisting of 65 enormous concrete pillars, with 62 steel gates about 42 meters long suspended between them. The idea was that those openings can be closed with heavy hydraulic slides in the event of impending high water to protect the hinterland. Importantly, the design was based on the projected sea level rise of 20 centimeters per century. That has now doubled and will increase even further as a result of climate change.

Map with all Delta Works, Rijkswaterstaat.
[Image description: A map of the southwestern parts of the Netherlands, indicating where and when different dams were built as part of the Deltaplan.]

Seventy years after the North Sea Flood of 1953, many Dutch people imagine themselves safe again behind the dikes and flood defenses. But the way the Netherlands deals with water is more important than ever.given the climate crisis. There have been plenty of warnings about rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change. However, the Netherlands is no longer just fighting a battle against water, as has so often been metaphorically described. Climate change highlights and exacerbates existing inequalities. And in a world where people will feel the impact of climate change most directly from having too much or too little water, it has now become primarily a battle for a sustainable, fair, and more inclusive future.

However you look at it, it’s time for action. After all, dikes can still break. 

*Cover image: Aerial photo of the flooded village of Oude-Tonge made out of a U.S. Army helicopter, Wikimedia Commons.

[*Cover image description: A black and white photo showing a bird’s eye view of a village submerged in water. There are many houses and other buildings.]

Edited by Genie Yoo, reviewed by Suzanne Enzerink.

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