Sixty years ago today, a combination of an unusually heavy storm in the North Sea and springtide, led to disaster along the shores of Britain, Belgium and especially the southwestern part of the Netherlands
, killing 1836 people in the largest modern day flooding
the country had seen.
In some ways the 1953 flood was the Dutch equivalent of 9/11: a massive disaster that came completely unexpected to most people, which hit the country in the place it felt most secure. After all, God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. The sea had been tamed, made harmless and a servant, uyet it struck without mercy and no warning. Like 9/11, it was only afterwards that the warning signals about this disaster were recognised and again like 9/11, once the disaster had happened, all the safety measures that had been too expensive and cumbersome before suddenly became affordable.
Where the analogy ends is that 9/11 gave America the TSA and taking your shoes off before boarding a plane, while the 1953 flood gave the Netherlands the Delta works
, the eight wonder of the world.
It was well known that the area in which the floodings took place was vulnerable to flooding, as the southwest of the Netherlands is a river delta, where the Rhine and Schelde rivers flood into the North 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 land reclamation. It's therefore already below normal sea level, only kept from reflooding by the dykes.
There had been plans to strengthen the dykes and shorten the coastline by damming off some of the estuary mouths, similar to the way the Afsluitdijk
had turned the Zuiderzee into the IJsselmeer, but the economic crisis of the 1930ties, not to mention World War II and the rebuilding of the country after it, had made these plans unfeasable.
After the disaster of course there was money to improve sea defences and the Deltaworks were designed. A series of dams and dykes to radically shorten the coastline, with existing dykes repaired and strengthened: it was a project that took until 1997 to be officially finished. The most impressive part of it is the Stormvloedkering
, a movable dam to keep the ecosystem of the Oosterschelde intact while still offering security to the people living behind it. The Delta Works, with its massive engineering, of course makes for great subject matter for National Geographic documentaries