Holland's 9/11 happened sixty years ago today
January 31, 2013 3:02 PM   Subscribe

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.
posted by MartinWisse (33 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The 9/11 analogy inspired by this tweet, which made a lightbulb go off in my head.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:05 PM on January 31, 2013

I find it hard to compare a natural disaster and a terrorist attack. Surely a comparison to hurricane Katrina seems more apt, no? The main difference being the infrastructure built afterward.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 3:12 PM on January 31, 2013 [34 favorites]

Canvey Island by British Sea Power talks a bit about this and how people respond to major disaster.
posted by randomination at 3:17 PM on January 31, 2013

Can we not use 9/11 to describe every disaster. The flooding was the North Sea flood of 1953. Nothing to do with 9/11.
posted by mattoxic at 3:24 PM on January 31, 2013 [14 favorites]

Could an admin possibly change the headline? This is an interesting post that's going to go off the rails due to a not-so-insightful headline.
posted by Kololo at 3:29 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

MartinWisse can contact us if he'd like to change it. It seems to be an integral part of his post.
posted by jessamyn at 3:31 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

What the flood has in common with 9/11 is that everyone in their respective country experienced it simultaneously, causing a mass response.

Of course, 9/11 was a media-driven mass experience, while the flood was, um, different.
posted by ocschwar at 3:32 PM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I remember being taught about the great Netherlands' flood in school along with the Zuiderzee works (and the boy with his finger in the dike, of course), as we were learning also about flood defences in England. But for some curious reason they didn't really explain that the flood was an English thing as well. It was only later that I learnt we had shared the same flood, and it seems to have relatively little cultural memory over here.

Also, on an different note, we found all the teaching materials about flood defences hard to understand, because they kept referring to dikes which we all understood as dykes, which is pretty much the exact opposite thing!
posted by Jehan at 3:35 PM on January 31, 2013

9/11 was a man made disaster resulting in ineffective security theater, the PATRIOT Act, torture, war, and other well-documented advances towards a police state. I think a comparison to the quite rational Dutch response to a natural disaster is forced and distasteful.
posted by monospace at 3:47 PM on January 31, 2013 [9 favorites]

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.

This sentence literally gave me cancer. Like, literally. Once the shock wears off, I'm dead.
posted by codswallop at 4:03 PM on January 31, 2013 [7 favorites]

The analogy I prefer is that the Oosterscheldekering was Holland's moon shot.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:06 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

and the boy with his finger in the dike, of course

Huh. I just learned (from Wikipedia) that the origin of that story is in Hans Brinker--the C19th American kids book. Apparently the story isn't particularly well known in the Netherlands--although "for tourism purposes" they have a few statues of the scene.

Not sure how that fits in with the 9/11 analogy; something something Judith Miller something something Curveball?
posted by yoink at 4:17 PM on January 31, 2013

I think we were told his name was Peter, not Hans Brinker. But it is interesting to hear he isn't known to the Dutch.

(I don't know who Judith Miller or what Curveball is, sorry.)
posted by Jehan at 4:27 PM on January 31, 2013

I think we were told his name was Peter, not Hans Brinker.

To clarify, the story gets told in the course of the Hans Brinker book, but is not about Hans. In the book, the boy is nameless. The name "Peter" was given to him in a poem that was written later by another (American) author to flesh the story out.
posted by yoink at 4:35 PM on January 31, 2013

I see a James Burke The Day the Universe changed style show built on the premise of taking two very different historical events and then building some link or analogy using some random connection...

The show could be called Spurious Analogies and it would teach me interesting stuff about history while still leaving me utterly confused as to the point of the analogy or connection.

After this Episode on the 911 Dutch Flood connection, they could explain how the Bengal famine of 1770 is like the North Korean Ryugyong Hotel! They both involved mittens filled with Atheist...
posted by astrobiophysican at 4:41 PM on January 31, 2013 [6 favorites]

Thanks for the post. I didn't know about this.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 5:05 PM on January 31, 2013

The 9 / 11 framing is unfortunate. Katrina is a little closer. Today's NYTimes sports page had a super bowl human interest story about Marshall Faulk's high school (George Washington Carver) where the students are still in trailers and the basketball team started the season practicing outside on asphalt still under the burden of Katrina aftereffects. It is diagnostic to compare the difference in a storm levee in New Orleans (where it's a few hundred thousand Louisianans exposed to the elements) versus a storm levee in Holland (where the whole friggin' country is in danger.) A Holland levee can be like 10 X the size.

Check out this sucker for example. That is the type of thing you need to protect you from the sea at full rage. Louisiana ain't ever gonna get one of those.
posted by bukvich at 6:32 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Interesting post, and framing. It seems like a lot of Americans find the framing...odd? offensive? How do fellow Dutch folk feel about it?
posted by maxwelton at 6:39 PM on January 31, 2013

I don't have a problem with the framing. For many, 9/11 has become a shorthand for "nasty surprise" and probably will remain such for a generation or two, or until the next nasty surprise. A previous generation would have used Pearl Harbor, or maybe the Tet Offensive, for the same purpose.

Katrina doesn't work as well because everyone knew it was coming, and everyone knew it was going to be bad (well everyone except for Dubya and the head of FEMA). It was perhaps worse than what people expected but it didn't come out of nowhere and the Times-Picayune ran mostly accurate articles in the years previous about what the city could expect out of a big hit.

The comparisons of natural disasters and the reactions to them with war is always interesting to me, especially when the disaster somehow brings the country together towards a great purpose. There's a New Yorker article from many years past about a volcano in Iceland and the struggle to prevent a lava flow from engulfing a town or particular area. Thousands mobilized and quite a bit of water was used to cool the flow and the author described it as Iceland's version of WWII: "a good war" which pulled everyone together.
posted by honestcoyote at 6:57 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Being born in 1959 and being raised as a sixties child in Cleethorpes, this was often mentioned by my family and friends, and I spent many hours playing on the sea defence walls that had been built as a result of the flood.
posted by Decani at 1:29 AM on February 1, 2013

The way a country reacts to a major disaster, man made or natural, says something about that country's national character. The framing of the post is, IMHO, an apt comparison between the essentially cooperative character of the Dutch and the essentially competitive character of Americans.

I was downtown on 9/11, and the company for whom I worked went under because of it. Four men on my street died. I now live in Holland less than two feet above sea level with only some delicate dunes and about six miles protecting me from the North Sea.

And I have absolutely no problem with the framing of this post. Dual citizen here; I can say shit like that, forensic fallacies be damned.
posted by digitalprimate at 1:29 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Being born in 1959 and being raised as a sixties child in Cleethorpes, this was often mentioned by my family and friends, and I spent many hours playing on the sea defence walls that had been built as a result of the flood.

One of the things that's always interested me is that the physical legacy of the 1953 Flood for London was immense, but it had barely any cultural impact. I suspect this is because London got incredibly lucky - the East End and Docks suffered, but the waters peaked and broke just before they reached Central London, and so disaster was very narrowly avoided. Indeed I think there was only one fatality within London itself, which paled in comparison to what was happening up river at Canvey Island.

The physical legacy though for London was huge, because both Parliament and the London local government suddenly realised just how utterly catastrophic (both in terms of loss of life and economic damage) the flooding of the Capital would now be.

That led to the Waverley Report (which resulted in the creation of those very flood walls you played on Decani) and to the late, great Sir Hermann Bondi recommending the construction of something that now stands as one of the greatest examples of modern metropolitan public works in the world - The Thames Barrier.

Half a kilometre long and straddling the river between Silvertown and New Charlton, the Thames Barrier took almost ten years to build, under the oversight of the Greater London Council (GLC) with whom the Goverment split the cost of funding. It basically works like a giant tap (or "faucet" as they say across the pond). Giant flood gates sit on the river bed and then are twisted up into place when needed (there's some nice photos and an explanation of how it works here).

It eventually cost over £500m to build (so about £1.5bn in todays money) and was the subject of some serious political fighting in the late 70s and early 80s. Back then the GLC was a major political battleground between its Thatcherite Conservative members, backed up by Thatcher's government, and the hard left wing of the Labour Party. The Conservatives argued that delays and cost overruns in the construction of the Barrier were due to excessive trade union activity amongst the workers. Labour accused the Conservatives of corruption related to the awarding of the construction contract and then, as it began to look increasingly likely that Labour, under (future London Mayor) Ken Livingstone were going to win control of the council in 1981, of bribing "everyone from the managers to the tea ladies" (in Livingstone's words) in an effort to have the Barrier finished before the election.

This ultimately resulted in a rather farcical "almost finished" ceremony hosted by Horace Cutler at the Barrier just before the election in 1981 during which, tragically, a steel cable snapped, killing a site worker.

In the end, the Barrier was finally opened in May 1984. By then the GLC was locked in a battle for its very survival with Thatcher, who naturally wasn't too tickled with having a hard left Labour local authority almost literally on her doorstep (The GLC met at Somerset House on the south bank of the Thames, directly opposite Parliament, and Livingstone used to do things like hang huge banners showing London's unemployment figures off the roof).

The opening of the Barrier was thus seen by Livingstone and Labour as a huge PR opportunity, but much to their horror the workers on the site threatened to strike if it was officially opened by the GLC rather than them asking the Queen to do it.

In the end it was opened by her majesty the queen, with a remarkably restrained Livingstone at her side.

Indeed Livingstone would later admit that Palace officials hit upon a rather novel way of making sure he behaved at the opening ceremony - they invited his mum. She was an old music hall performer and ardent royalist and they gambled that he wouldn't say anything to embarrass her in front of the Queen.

She thus travelled down the river to, and attended the ceremony with, the Royal party and according to Livingstone, Prince Philip's greeted him warmly upon arriving at the Barrier with the words "Your mother's a lively old stick!" - he'd apparently spent the trip down trading horse betting tips with Livingstone's mother, and when he'd asked her if she was warm enough she'd replied "Oh yes, I've got a lot on underneath dear."

Thus the Barrier opened, although in actuality that wasn't the first time it was raised. In fact, it had already been quietly used "in anger" to prevent tidal flooding, By pure chance that was on 1st February 1983, the 30th anniversary of the Flood itself. Today, after the abolision of the GLC in 1986 and after a brief period under the control of Thames Water, it's now the responsibility of the Environment Agency.

So that's what I mean by the Flood having a huge physical legacy. It didn't just result in the construction of the worlds longest moveable flood barrier (The Oosterscheldekering, part of the Delta works mentioned by MartinWisse in the OP) but also the second longest in the Thames Barrier. Its impact on the city is impossible to understate. London will never flood (tidally at least) as long as it stands strong. Indeed London Underground don't even bother maintaining most of their Thames floodgates anymore (warning: self link).

It's a rather strange situation really, because the majority of Londoners probably know what the Thames Barrier is, that it's important and that "raising the Barrier" is a Very Big Deal™ (especially now people have seen the destruction Sandy waged on our sister city New York). They just couldn't tell you why it was built in the first place. That cultural memory just doesn't exist.
posted by garius at 4:46 AM on February 1, 2013 [18 favorites]

I suppose we could have compared it to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which while not as many killed as the Dutch flood, probably affected more people, had ramifications such as expansion of the levee system (that failed in Katrina), probably helped kick out Calvin Coolidge, kick in Herbert Hoover, may have helped spark the rise of Huey Long, helped push along one of the great internal migrations of the United States with African-Americans moving from the South to the industrialized northern cities, and other things.

Or...we can just compare it to 9/11.

Or Maybe the 1927 Flood (quote below from PBS American Experience documentary on the flood)?

In the spring of 1927, after weeks of incessant rains, the Mississippi River went on a rampage. Racing south from Cairo, Illinois, the river blew away levee after levee, inundating thousands of farms and hundreds of towns, killing as many as a thousand people and leaving nearly a million homeless. By the time it reached New Orleans, the flood had not only altered the landscape of 27,000 square miles -- an area the size of four New England States -- it had widened the abyss of race relations in the Deep South.
posted by Atreides at 7:11 AM on February 1, 2013

Was mulling that a Black Swan event was maybe a more appropriate description? Though Katrina, Sandy et al weakens this descriptor, as it's perhaps not that rare an event.
posted by Wordshore at 7:56 AM on February 1, 2013

All the above other disasters were also black swan events. The point is not only about the event itself; the point also about a nation's reaction to the event.
posted by digitalprimate at 9:00 AM on February 1, 2013

First learned about this in A Tide in the Attic.
posted by Rash at 9:16 AM on February 1, 2013

At least for me, one does not compare a natural disaster to 9/11 (and vice versa). Every terrible event results in a reaction, and the scale of said event probably is then reflected in the reaction, but there's a dissonance between the two above. It would have been far more interesting and instructive to see how different nations responded to similar tragedies than to dredge up 9/11 and some how in earnestness claim that it's intrinsically the perfect modern day analogy to an act of nature and man's attempt to prevent said nature from ever acting that way again.

Just a fail on my end.
posted by Atreides at 9:39 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

cromagnon: For accuracy, 9/11 did not give us "taking your shoes off before boarding a plane"; that didn't start until Richard Reid.
... whose incompetent failure to follow in the footsteps of the 9/11 bombers would never have engendered such a ludicrous overreaction without 9/11, so - yes, it did.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:14 AM on February 1, 2013

The events itself are not comparable, no, but the impact they had are. 9/11 made America feel unsafe, vulnerable in exactly the same way as the floods made Holland feel unsecure, in both cases because we were hit in places we'd never thought we would be vulnerable.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:00 AM on February 1, 2013

Being born in 1959 and being raised as a sixties child in Cleethorpes, this was often mentioned by my family and friends, and I spent many hours playing on the sea defence walls that had been built as a result of the flood.
I wondered when it stopped being mentioned? I went to Cleggy loads as a child, and still sometimes go, but have never seen anything about the flood there. The most I've seen of the flood locally is a few pictures of Mablethorpe, but I've never heard of the connection of the sea wall at either place being built due to the flood.
posted by Jehan at 12:24 PM on February 1, 2013

in both cases because we were hit in places we'd never thought we would be vulnerable.

I'm sorry, but... what? Zeeland (and Holland) have been flooded dozens of times throughout history. 1953 was a disaster of an unprecedented scope, but tragically it was also a disaster that was just waiting to happen.

(I mean, it's not like the Dutch were stupid. They knew that the dikes were in bad shape and they had already begun reinforcing them and building new ones. But then World War 2 happened and their new Nazi overlords had, shall we say, different priorities. And after the war there wasn't enough money left.)

Anecdotally, my father remembers the 1953 flood. The water level of the harbour in Rotterdam had risen so much overnight that the boats had started drifting and some of them ended up lying on the quay. This was apparently such a strange sight to my (then two-year old) father that he can recall it to this day.
posted by Caconym at 1:56 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

And the lesson here, kids, is that if you pick a tone-deaf or intentionally shock-value title for your FPP, your intended subject is likely to be ignored in lieu of debating your wording.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:08 AM on February 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

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