The watersnoodramp: the Dutch 9/11

If there is an event that changed the Dutch as much as 9/11 changed the US, the Watersnoodramp, the flood disaster of 1953, was it.

This is a comparison I wouldn’t have reached on my own, but it is true. For those who went through the Watersnoodramp it was the biggest shock of their lives, perhaps an even bigger shock than living through World War II had been. That disaster after all was manmade, with convenient villains and which could be easily remade into a self flattering narrative of a plucky little country standing up to the might of the efficient, ruthless nazi hordes. But to be overwhelmed by nature, by the old enemy, the sea, the enemy we were supposed to have tamed and bound our will, suddenly showing just how fragile our defences really were: that shocked us to the core, that hit us in the national psyche.

a map of the area hit by the flood

And like 9/11, while the disaster seemed to come out of the blue, the reality was that it had been predicted long before it happened. The southwest of the netherlands is a delta, where two huge rivers, the Rhine and the Schelde, come together and flow into the sea. Much of the land within the delta, in the provinces of Zuid-Holland, Noord-Brabant and Zeeland is artificial, won from the sea through centuries of patient dyke building and inpoldering; land reclamation. It lies therefore mostly below the normal water level already, only kept from flooding through the dykes. And because of the long coast line and the high costs of dyke strengthening, many of those dykes were strong enough to withstand normal flooding conditions, but not strong enough to withstand the extra strong surge of water that resulted from a combination of springtide and an unusually heavy storm on the North Sea.

To continue the comparison with 9/11, the response to the disaster was similar as well. Suddnely there was money and political will to implement the safety measures experts had been advocating for decades. But where after 9/11 this led to the TSA and the need to take your shoes off before boarding a plane, in Holland we go the Delta Works. Instead of merely repairing and strengthening the existing water defence works, instead the decision was made to radically alter and shorten the Dutch coastline, by closing up all those estuary mouths and inlets, except those that led to the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, of course.

But while we started off energetically to dam all the things, greater environmental awareness led to huge campaigns from the seventies onwards to stop the damming of the last remaining estuary, the Oosterschelde. Instead we got the stormfloodkering: a dam that’s normally open, but can close during springtides or at other dangerous times. This keeps the Oosterschelde at roughly the same salt level as it was at before the dam, keeps the normal tides coming in and out, hence keeping the ecosystem that was there before the dam alive. It was vastly more expensive than a simple dam would’ve been, but it’s the perfect compromise between safety and nature and has created the eight wonder of the world.

Holland was safe. Safe behind the dykes

Even if you know next to nothing about the Netherlands, you know that our history has been one of struggle, a continuing struggle against the sea and its might. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that we conquered this country from the sea, polder by polder and dyke by dyke. Even in the earliest mention of what once would become our country, in the works of the Roman historian Pliny the Elder this struggle was evident, as he spoke of “a people living between water and land”.

More than a quarter of the country lies below the waterline and would flood if there weren’t dykes and dunes to keep the sea out. You see, the western and especially the south western part of the country, the part I’m from, is nothing more then a massive delta, a place where three of Europe’s great rivers come together: the Rhine, the Schelde and the Meuse, flowing into each other and into the sea, creating a borderland of islands and estuaries: Zeeland, “sealand”.

Yes, the force of the sea was well known, as flood after flood had made clear through the centuries. But by 1953 all this had changed. Thanks to the high modern dykes, the risk of another flood was minimal. The last serious flood, in 1944, had not even been a natural disaster, but was caused by the Allies bombing the dykes of Walcheren –which dominated the approach to the vital harbour of Antwerpen– to flood out the Germans. Since then, the dykes and dunes had been repaired and rebuild:
Holland was safe again.

Until that fateful moment, today exactly fifty years ago, when during the night and onto the next morning it turned out the dykes weren’t high and strong enough and the North Sea delivered a nasty surprise to the Dutch South West. On that day, the worst flood, the worst natural disaster in Dutch modern history began. Before it was under control, 1835 people would be dead, some 750,0000 people were affected; many lost their homes, had to be evacuated, had to flee the coming water with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. The amount of livestock lost is unknown, but must number in the (tens of) thousands. Material damage was unmeasurable. Below is a map of the afflicted area:

a map of the area hit by the flood

Over the next few days I would like to tell the story of the disaster, the relief operations and its aftermath here at Wis[s]e Words. The disaster is one of the events that has shaped modern Holland, both figurally but aslo literally, as after the disaster drastic steps were undertaken to ensure it would never happen again. It is a story I find worth telling, hopefully y’all will find it worth reading as well.