During the weekend of Saturday 31 January to Sunday 1 February 1953, a storm tide raged across the northwest European shelf and flooded the low-lying coastal areas of the countries around the North Sea. The peak high waters occurred during the night and the storm surprised many people in their sleep. The resulting disaster in terms of loss of life and damage to infrastructure was enormous. In the Netherlands, 1836 people fell victim to the flood; in the UK and Belgium, the casualities were 307 and 22, respectively. The large number of fatalities in the Netherlands was related to the fact that much of the affected area is below sea-level.
This paper focuses on the case of the Netherlands. It discusses the history of land reclamation, and the fact that living in low-lying areas protected by dykes, often below sea-level, is an accepted fact of life in the Netherlands. The historical approach to dyke maintenance is then outlined, and the state of the dykes in the early twentieth century and after the war is discussed. The characteristics of the storm and the flood are discussed, along with people's experiences of the first hours and days following the flood. The impact of this human stress has often been lasting—many survivors continue to live with daily memories of the flood. Attention is given to the large-scale rescue and relief efforts, the closure of the dykes during the following nine months and the concept of the Delta Plan, designed to prevent such a large-scale disaster ever happening again. Although the 1953 storm was indeed a low probability event leading to very high storm-induced water-levels, and occurred in combination with spring tide, several arguments are presented that explain why this flood turned into a disaster of such a large scale. Equally, the question is raised whether the disaster could have been prevented. The paper concludes by noting the importance of awareness and preparedness in order to prevent a future storm threat of this scale turning into a disaster of the scope of the Big Flood of 1953.