Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of a flood so devastating it became known as the Great North Sea Flood (or, in Dutch, the Watersnoodramp – the flood disaster). On the night of 31 January 1953, a major storm caused the North Sea to overflow the surrounding low lying coastal areas and to surge upstream, devastating flood plains in England, Scotland, the Netherlands and Belgium. In total, 2,551 people died on a night that would, in particular, change the Netherlands for ever.
It was a cataclysmic combination of natural forces that produced the storm tide that would submerge vast swathes of land adjoining the North Sea. A high spring tide ensured the sea level was already higher than normal. When combined with a severe ‘European windstorm’, the sea frothed and surged until the water level reached 5.6 metres (18.4 ft) above the mean sea level.
A wall of water, taller than a double-decker bus and just under the height of a two-storey terrace house, swamped the low-lying areas of East Anglia, the Fens, Zeeland and West Flanders and deluged higher ground that was usually spared flooding.
The statistics of death and destruction are staggering: of the 2,551 people killed, 1,836 were Dutch. In the UK, 326 people lost their lives. According to the Dutch museum documenting the tragedy, 47,000 cows and 140,000 poultry drowned in the Netherlands alone. In addition, around 200,000 hectares of Dutch land had been inundated, much of it prime agricultural land damaged by the incursion of salt water.
The ferocity of the storm meant many hundreds died on the sea, with 133 losing their life when the MV Princess Victoria sank in the North Channel between Stranraer in Scotland and Larne in Northern Ireland.
The flood was particularly destructive in an age before modern flood defences had been prepared in the south-east of England and across the Netherlands. The serious loss of life was, in part, caused by a lack of information as radio stations did not broadcast through the night and warnings from the national meteorological offices failed to reach coastal residents in time. In the UK, no single body was responsible for flood warnings and there were no tidal surge forecasting systems in place.
Although the Netherlands was the worst affected country, the impact in England was severe. Floodwaters reached two miles inland in parts of Lincolnshire and over 1,000 km2 were under water. Residents of low lying areas in Essex, especially on Canvey Island, were particularly badly affected and their shocking testimony graphically demonstrates the terror of a midnight inundation.
The official response was a combination of immediate relief, a comprehensive re-evaluation to disaster alerts and responses and longer-term engineering projects. Both the UK’s Thames Barrier and the Dutch Delta Works can trace their origin to that terrible night in January 1953, ensuring that major metropolitan areas neighbouring the North Sea were much safer.
The disaster became so indelibly marked on the Dutch national psyche that a museum was set up (the Watersnoodmuseum) to serve as an enduring testimony to the awesome and destructive power of the sea.
On 31January 2013, a memorial service will be held at Chelmsford Cathedral attended by the Princess Royal. Many people throughout Europe will pause to remember a terrible night when land was subsumed by sea.