Low-pressure weather systems are a familiar feature of the winter climate in the northern Atlantic. While they often drive wind, rain, and other unpleasantness against Europe’s rocky western margin, this is typically on a “mostly harmless” basis. Early in the evening of 31 January 1953, the weather in northern Europe was damp, chilly, and blustery. These unremarkable seasonal conditions disguised the fact that a storm of extreme severity was massing nearby, and that an ill-fated assortment of meteorological, geophysical, and human factors would soon coalesce into an almost unprecedented watery catastrophe.
The storm scudded past the northern tip of Scotland and took an unusual southerly detour, shifting towards a low-lying soft European overbelly of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land. The various people, communities, and countries in its path differed in their readiness and in their responses to the looming crisis, yet the next 24 hours were about to teach them all some enduring lessons. In a world that remains awash with extreme weather events—and with increasing numbers of people living in vulnerable coastal areas—the story of this particular storm system’s collision with humanity remains much-studied by emergency planners, and much-remembered in the three countries it so fatally struck.
The weather system’s primary mechanism of devastation was a storm surge. Storm surges are a frequent feature of marine foul weather: low atmospheric pressure in a storm system causes the water underneath to bulge up—in the same way that sucking air out of a drinking straw causes fluid to rise—so that sea levels in low-pressure areas are always higher than mean sea level, regardless of the effect of other factors such as wind or tide. The lowest recorded barometric pressure in the 1953 storm was 964 millibars—a markedly low figure more characteristic of a tropical typhoon or hurricane than a north Atlantic winter storm.
Furthermore, the storm’s pressure gradient—the sharpness of the difference between the air pressure of the storm system and that of the surrounding air—was unusually pronounced, generating staggeringly high winds. The highest documented wind speed in the storm, recorded off the Orkney Islands, was a Category 3 hurricane-equivalent 126 mph. Earlier that afternoon, these winds had provided a grisly prelude for what was to follow, when huge waves overwhelmed the Irish Sea ferry MV Princess Victoria and drowned 133 of her passengers and crew. Her radio officer, David Broadfoot, was posthumously awarded the George Cross for maintaining telegraph contact with rescuers to the very end, giving up his own life so that others might escape.
With nightfall, the steep pressure gradient, the propulsive effect of the high winds, and the shallow depth of the North Sea’s continental shelf all combined to produce an unusually well-defined storm surge that ripped down the eastern coastline of the United Kingdom, picking off towns and villages as it went. As the surge moved south, its size was magnified further by the rising tide, eventually massing into a tumbling ridge of water three metres above mean sea level. In some areas, local coastal geometry and tidal conditions pressed this to as much as 5.6 metres, or 18 feet, above normal levels. Eyewitnesses reported the unusual and alarming effect of a distinct wall of water rushing towards them—an aberration more akin to a tsunami, or a tidal bore in a river estuary, than to a normal storm surge.
As water indiscriminately topped sea walls, poured across streets and fields, and forced its way into homes, curious onlookers became terrified onrunners. Shock and confusion followed in the surge’s wake. Britain was entirely unprepared for a natural disaster of this magnitude. In 1953, civil protection measures were well honed to resist human invasion from the continent to the southeast, but blunderingly ineffective against a meteorological behemoth from the north. As residents evacuated their homes in Scotland, authorities lacked established procedures for alerting people in the south that water—lots of water—was heading their way. Thousands of former residents of bomb-damaged cities had been provided with prefabricated seaside housing. These flimsy constructions proved all too susceptible to the ruinous rush of water.
In the first few critical hours, the response from central government was poorly coordinated and sparse. Local communities were thrown upon their own resources, and the burden of immediate disaster response and relief fell to makeshift rescue teams and quick-thinking individuals who happened to be in the right/wrong place at the wrong/right time.
One of the many who stepped forward that night was Reis Leming, a US airman from Illinois. Leming was stationed at an Air Force base near the Norfolk town of Hunstanton on the east coast of England. Although he couldn’t swim, he volunteered to help people trapped in the town:
“I heard people screaming and saw flashlights, and I knew someone had to go.”
Leming grabbed an aircrew exposure suit and a rubber raft from base stores and headed into town. He singlehandedly succeeded in plucking 27 shivering residents from the rooftops, repeatedly battling the bitterly cold flood in a series of raft relays across the submerged streets. After his survival suit snagged and ripped—exposing his skin to the frigid seawater—it was only a matter of time before he collapsed with hypothermia. Fellow rescuers manhandled him to safety, and he regained consciousness just in time to hear a nurse uttering the doom-laden words: “These legs will have to come off.”
Thankfully the legs of his survival suit were snipped away without incident and he recovered intact, to become one of that night’s five recipients of the George Medal, one of the UK’s highest awards for peacetime bravery—and the first ever non-British citizen to be so honoured.
But individual acts of courage such as Leming’s could do nothing to slow the surge. As it swept past the Thames Estuary, low-lying areas such as Canvey Island were devastated, and docks and industrial areas were destroyed. In central London, floodwaters lapped the top of the embankments at Victoria and Chelsea, but refrained—just—from overtopping them and inundating the capital’s tube train network. At the end of that terrible night, the flood had killed over three hundred people in the British Isles—or over five hundred, if offshore shipping fatalities are included in the total—and 160,000 acres of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land lay in wet, salty ruin. Yet this was barely the end of the beginning.
The southwestern corner of the North Sea traces a funnel shape, narrowing towards the mouth of an ancient river estuary that has lain submerged since the last ice age: the Strait of Dover. Where the coastlines of continental Europe and eastern England converge toward the Strait, the sea becomes progressively shallower. The hurricane-force wind-propelled storm surge that had caused such devastation along the eastern coast of Britain was now piling into an increasingly constrained three-dimensional space. Soon, it would make its final landfall.
In the Netherlands, as in eastern England, large numbers of people live on low-lying coastal land—but in the aptly-named “Low Countries,” the proportion of the population in this precarious position is even greater. By the mid-twentieth century, hundreds of years of land reclamation efforts had left large areas of Dutch countryside at or below sea level, in polders protected by a complex network of drainage canals, sluices, dykes, and other sea defences.
In 1953, the Netherlands was particularly vulnerable. The Second World War had treated the country badly: the shattered population had endured a debilitating famine at the close of the conflict, and was still struggling to build its sea defences back up to pre-war standards. Military bunkers and fortifications had damaged the physical integrity of the dykes, peppering them with weak spots, and in some areas the German military occupation had limited local access for routine maintenance.
The impact of these potential deficiencies was magnified by the multiplicity of water boards, the local organisations charged with maintaining designated stretches of sea defences: when faced with an extreme, wide-area flood, inadequate repair work in one small section could easily threaten the entire network. Although the Netherlands had developed a flood warning system as early as 1921, relatively few town mayors or leaders of the water boards were subscribed to the service, and in any case, disseminating evacuation messages widely in remote areas in the early hours of the morning was probably impossible given the technology of the era. Few telephones were in private ownership, most of the population was asleep, ferries had stopped running, radios were switched off, and satellite communication was little more than a far-fetched fantasy fresh from a young Arthur C. Clarke’s pen.
As dawn approached on the morning of February 1st, the arrival of the ferocious seawater surge coincided with a high spring tide. With shocking speed, multiple sections of the Dutch flood-defence network failed catastrophically. Dykes overtopped or collapsed under the pressure, resulting in extreme damage to person, polder, and property. Nearly 10% of the nation’s agricultural land was submerged, tens of thousands of farm animals were drowned, and over 1,800 human lives were lost. In outlying areas, such as the islands off the coast of the southern province of Zeeland, many residents received no warning at all and were drowned in their beds. The storm surge forced its way into the principal Dutch estuaries, bursting or spilling into adjacent polders as it raced relentlessly upstream. The floodwaters ultimately penetrated inland as far as Antwerp, drowning 28 people and making Belgium the third country to suffer loss of life in the flood.
Despite the devastation and human tragedy, the loss of life and property could have been much worse. In the Netherlands, as in Britain, local groups and individuals were instrumental in reducing the extent of the damage; without their efforts, it is likely that the number of fatalities would have been orders of magnitude higher.
One particular example stands out. In 1953, a single dyke running alongside the Hollandse Ijssel, a branch of the Rhine Delta, protected nearly three million people in central and northern Holland from the encroaching flood. Recognising the threat relatively early, local people in and around the nearby town of Nieuwerkerk worked through the night to reinforce a weakened section of the dyke. One 14-metre stretch was causing particular concern. As morning drew near, water broke through in multiple locations along the earthen wall, and it seemed all the workers’ efforts might be in vain. Townspeople and farmers debated desperate plans to stave off disaster—one idea involved demolition of a local church tower to provide debris to plug the holes—but in the end, the town mayor had a flash of inspiration. He called on the services of a local grain barge skipper, Arie Evegroen. The courageous captain sailed his 18-metre-long vessel Twee Gebroeders, the “Two Brothers,” into the widening breach and wedged it in the wall of the dyke. Colleagues flung sandbags around the remaining gaps, and eventually the leaks were contained—saving many thousands, if not millions, of people from drowning or homelessness. It seems doubtful that any other person in the world has ever—before or since—so directly saved so many other livelihoods, if not lives, through a single act.
What distinguished the Dutch flood response overall, however, was its cooperative character: local teamwork forged from hundreds of years of communal combat against the recalcitrant sea. As the storm’s energy dissipated and the tide ebbed through the morning of February 1st, exhausted emergency workers and bedraggled householders could at last turn to each other and breathe a long, slow collective sigh of relief. While many hours of gruelling recovery work lay ahead, the waters were receding. In the days following the disaster, local relief efforts were bolstered by external support, which flowed in from across Europe and beyond. Nearby countries sent soldiers to help, and the US Army dispatched vital supplies from bases in Germany using its newfangled helicopters.
Even as local people started the arduous process of rebuilding, their leaders started to plan. They were united in one aim: that the Netherlands would never be so badly flooded again. The organisational structure of existing protection measures soon came under scrutiny. The local water boards—organisations composed of farmers, townspeople, and other parties with a keen interest in staying dry—were undoubtedly an asset for flood prevention and response: they meant that often, the people involved in emergency repair and disaster relief worked well together because they knew each other from routine maintenance activities, and were familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of local sea defences. Indeed, these unique bodies, which date back to the fourteenth century, represent one of the earliest forms of representative democracy in Europe and were influential in shaping the entire modern Dutch political system. After 1953, however, it became obvious that they were too small, too localised, and that there were too many of them. The country clearly needed fewer boards that were each larger, better resourced, and better connected. While retaining their basic functions and participatory structure, the water boards were streamlined from around two thousand in the mid-twentieth century to a more manageable 25 at the beginning of the 21st century—all closely linked by efficient storm and surge warning systems.
But the most visible and striking long-term legacy of the flood is a vast engineering project known as the “Delta Works.” Within weeks of the disaster, officials dusted down an ambitious pre-war blueprint called the Deltaplan, which proposed to dam the major estuaries of the Dutch coast and convert them into giant freshwater lakes. Sea fishermen and environmentalists objected vigorously, and the authorities quickly conceded that the national priority should be storm surge protection, rather than a radical reworking of the regional ecosystem. The amended plan—realised in steel, earth, and concrete in the ensuing decades—has completely changed the appearance of the Dutch coastline and is, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, one of the Wonders of the Modern World. Thirteen vast barriers and dams now bestride the country’s inlets and estuaries. Many of these constructions allow water to flow unimpeded during normal conditions, but when communities are threatened by extremes of wind and tide, operators can trigger the closure of huge steel valves to keep the surging sea at bay. The largest of them all, the nine-kilometre Oosterscheldekering—which means, in the plain-speaking language of flood engineers, the “Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier”—is the longest tidal barrier in the world.
The flood also taught important lessons on the other side of the North Sea. One of the immediate British responses to the flood was, rather predictably, the formation of a committee: the Departmental Committee on Coastal Flooding. The committee’s report triggered a number of important changes to UK national flood defence. A national storm tide warning service was set up, with a brief to forecast any potentially dangerous flood conditions—and more importantly, to speedily communicate these predictions to threatened communities and the relevant emergency services. In the years that followed, sea defences were beefed up along the North Sea coast, but it was London’s near-miss that caused particular concern. When, in 1982, the world’s second largest movable tidal barrier was completed at the mouth of the Thames estuary—the Thames Barrier—the politicians and bureaucrats inhabiting the riverside committee rooms of the Houses of Parliament could relax at last.
Sixty years after the flood, northern Europe’s improved sea defences finally faced conditions comparable to those of the 1953 catastrophe. On 5th and 6th December 2013, a powerful low-pressure system tracked southwards into the North Sea, following a path eerily similar to that of its postwar predecessor. Once again, it coincided with high tides along the coastlines of the British Isles and northern Europe, and boasted a storm surge that, at its maximum, was estimated to be three metres high. This time, however, data and communication networks hummed in anticipation. While floods struck some areas along the English coastline, forewarned residents had left their homes hours earlier and were safely sheltering in community rest centres. Where flooding occurred, people and infrastructure were generally resilient enough to cope; one inundated coastguard station in Norfolk remained operational despite waves crashing through the lower levels of the building. Two British people died inland as a result of the associated windstorm, but the sea took no lives.
When the monstrous mound of seawater met the Dutch coast, it hit the closed barriers of the Delta Works, where it stopped. Flooding in the Netherlands was minor and localised, and there were no fatalities.
In Britain, close calls like the 2013 storm surge periodically underscore the ever-present danger posed by the sea. Residents of the Netherlands hardly need such reminders: for many, February 1st remains an annual day of remembrance. Although both nations have made great strides in protecting their people against the encroaching ocean, ultimately, all these efforts will be subject to a number of awkwardly uncompromising constraints. The ongoing geological seesaw effect of post-ice age glacial rebound is slowly but relentlessly tipping the coastlines of the southern North Sea into water, while global sea level rise is set to relentlessly tip water over the land. At some point, barriers will need to be built higher, or populations moved—and not just in the Netherlands and Britain, but in the many other parts of the globe where human and natural factors conjoin to create potential flood crises. Yet thanks to the events of 1953, much of northern Europe remains—for now—one step ahead.