In light of the flood warnings for North sea coastal areas of Scotland, England and Germany for 5 and 6 December 2013, we decided to take a timely look at the 1953 North Sea floods, considered to be the worst natural disaster in Europe in modern times. The disaster led to the building of new flood defences, such as the Thames Barrier. Communities across northern Europe will be hoping those flood defences will prevent a repeat of the 1953 floods.
A rapidly moving deep low pressure system in the North Sea caused a strong storm surge – the largest ever recorded on the UK east coast. Although not an especially deep system, it moved close to land and generated strong, sustained northwesterly gales which, along with spring high tide on the night of 31st January, exacerbated the storm surge. The combination of wind, high tide, and low pressure system led to a water level of more than 5.6 metres (18.4 ft) above mean sea level in some locations.
In the UK, flooding was experienced over a 1,000 mile stretch of the east coast, with the worst affected areas being in Essex and the Thames estuary. As the surge raced down the east coast of England into the southern North Sea, it was exaggerated by the shallower waters, with flooding in Lincolnshire reaching as far as 2 miles inland.
According to the UK Environment Agency, 307 people died in southeastern England, with 58 deaths in Canvey Island alone, and 19 people died in Scotland. An estimated 160,000 hectares of land was flooded, over 24,000 homes destroyed and 40,000 people evacuated. The estimated damage was around £50 million (at the time).
The damage was even worse in the Netherlands, where large parts of Zuid-Holland, Zeeland and Nord Brabant were flooded, 200,000 hectares in total. An estimated 1,836 people lost their lives, mostly in the southern province of Zeeland, and 100,000 more were evacuated. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned, and 47,300 buildings were damaged, of which 10,000 were destroyed. Total damage is estimated at 1 billion Dutch guilders. In the Netherlands this event is known as the watersnoodramp (flood disaster).
In Belgium several dikes breached, flooding the Ostend and Antwerp areas, with 28 people losing their lives in West Flanders.
More than 230 people died at sea along northern European coasts as well in the deeper waters of the North Sea. The largest loss of life occurred when the ferry MV Princess Victoria sank in the North Channel east of Belfast with 133 fatalities. This was then the deadliest maritime disaster in United Kingdom waters since World War II.
In 1953, none of the local Dutch radio stations broadcast at night and, being a Saturday night, most government offices in the disaster area were unstaffed. As a result, the warnings of the meteorological institute did not reach the flood-threatened area in time and people were unprepared for the impending flood.
The Schielandse Hoge Zeedijk along the river Hollandse IJssel was all that protected three million people in the provinces of South and North Holland from flooding. A section of this dyke, known as the Groenendijk, was not reinforced with stone revetments. Volunteers worked to reinforce this stretch but the dike began to collapse under the pressure around 5:30 am on 1 February. Seawater flooded into the deep polder and, in desperation, the mayor of Nieuwerkerk commandeered the river ship de Twee Gebroeders, ordering the owner to plug the hole in the dyke by navigating the ship into it. The mayor’s plan turned out to be successful, as the ship was lodged firmly into the dyke, saving many lives.
The storm led directly to the decision to construct flood defences such as the Dutch ‘Deltawerken’ and the UK Thames Barrier.
Ongoing maintenance and climate change dynamics have resulted in the Dutch altering their approach to coastal defence from simply reinforcing barriers, to a more comprehensive ‘Room for the River’ concept.