The night Zeeland drowned

The flood arrived in the middle of the night, on a Sunday morning in the depths of winter. The catastrophe in which the Dutch province of Zeeland drowned, on 1st February 1953, can never be forgotten. With 1.853 dead and unsurpassed economic damage, the so-called Beatrix-flood was the worst natural disaster that man could remember in Western Europe. Zeeland at the time was a cluster of small and still isolated islands - some of these almost completely disappeared under the waves. Due to the lack of communications, it took several days before the true scale became known to the outside world. Some people waited for help on the roof of their farm, for four days and four nights - in streaming rain, in blizzards and in freezing cold. In my own country Belgium, the flood took 14 lives and I vividly remember how the city of Brugge only narrowly escaped the worst. In a place called "Pijp en Toebak" north of Antwerp, breaches in the Scheldt embankments would remain open for more than a month.

In the Netherlands, the situation was much worse altogether - beyond any comparison. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from the disaster area. The village of Stavenisse mourned for 153 dead and missing; in Oude-Tonge where a memorial would be erected, no less than 300 people drowned. A total of 480 km out of the 1080 km of dikes in southern Holland were damaged, and no less than 500 breaches in the dikes were counted. It took nine months before the last breach could be closed, near Ouwerkerk. Almost 200.000 ha. of fertile land was flooded by the sea. Salinization of the farming land caused damage that would be felt for many years to come. A huge campaign of solidarity was set up, both in the Netherlands and abroad. Finally, the 1953 flooding led to the famous Delta-works that would "forever" keep off the sea by closing all tidal inlets.

At the time of the 25th anniversary of the Zeeland flooding, I went through it all again for my newspaper - raking up the facts, the stories and all the human suffering of 1953. On this page of my website, I also include a very moving letter of Annie M.G.Schmidt, a famous Dutch writer, in which she addresses her neighbour in Zeeland. In this letter, written in 1953 from her then address in Amsterdam, she recalls how they both suffered all the misery of the 1944 flooding at the isle of Walcheren, barely eight years before, when the allies had breached the dikes and for six months the tide had come and gone in their street.


Dutch navy helicopters winch survivors from the roof of their farms in Zeeland, 1953.


Belgian marine soldiers help clearing debris from the streets of Ostend, after a devastating storm surge raged through the city in February 1953.


The seawater in Zeeland had risen so high, that even river barges could moor to pick up survivors from the roof windows.