© 2014 All Rights Reserved. Do not distribute or repurpose this work without written permission from the copyright holder(s).
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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.
© 2014 All Rights Reserved. Do not distribute or repurpose this work without written permission from the copyright holder(s).
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A fantastic article and eerie how it repeated itself so many years later, goes to show what a lot of money and effort thrown at a problem can fix and advance things. Shame most people and governments don’t feel the way about that as they did 30, 40, 50 years ago.
First! After all these years…
I first heard about this amazing story in a Geography lesson at school. One of the reasons it was my favourite class. Thank you Mr Rodgers and Matt Castle.
Super interesting as always, thanks for enlightening me on the subject !
Engineering projects like the Delta Works are just so incredibly awe-inspiring to me. This is a rare example of humans having such complete dominion over the environment that we can shape it to our liking. Seeing a project like the Delta Works be a reality makes other similar huge projects, like the German plan to dam up and drain the Mediterranean Sea in the early 20th century, seem not so far-fetched. Even if the sea pushes forward, we can still fight to reclaim land.
Looks like it will take a few more years my friend.
DI!!!! I have been a lurker on this site for a couple of years now and finally feel able to post something I know about! I have lived in/around London for most of my life and seeing the Thames barrier close/open is always a magnificent sight (although it doesn’t happen very often).
I remember a number of years ago I was on a river tour of the Thames and the guide mentioned an interesting fact that for some reason I have never forgotten. If anyone has every been to London you may recall seeing a large number of iron lion heads mounted on the bank of the River Thames, about 2 meters above the water level. They have been there for a great many years and apparently locals had a saying –
‘When the Lions do drink, London shall sink’.
To the best of my knowledge the sea level has never reached the Lions mouths, but everytime I see one I feel much safer when I can see the sea level far below it!!!
A slight correction here:
“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.”
In northern Europe, the glacial rebound effect lifts coastlines from water, not into it.
This is true of Scandinavia and Scotland and other areas that were directly under the ice cap. Here coastlines are indeed being lifted due to isostatic rebound. However there is a tilt effect (the ‘seesaw’) so that areas further south are actually subsiding. This is shown in the map of Post Glacial Rebound Effects in the British Isles, about a third of the way into the Wikipedia article you linked to.
Great article, but then seriously dude, you had to throw in some random environmentalist propaganda at the end about how we’re all going to die because of rising sea levels, most likely caused by us evil human beings… sigh
The article never called humans evil. In fact, it rather lauded what humans are capable when we put our minds to it. It never even once even alluded to humans affecting the world climate. Nor did it claim we’re all going to die because of rising sea levels. What it actually said is occurring, “post-ice age glacial rebound”, is 100% true.
If you see the facts about the real world as “propaganda”, then I think you’ve been listening to too much actual propaganda from those who would deny reality when faced with the overwhelming amount of objective scientific facts about climate change. Facts which are readily available to anyone who cares to look at them.
Sea levels are rising. This is a fact. Global temperatures are also rising. This is also a fact. Admitting that we need to be ready to deal with the consequences of these changes or we’ll suffer for failing to do so seems like a pretty responsible conclusion to come to after reading the rest of the article.
If that upsets you, well, feel free to continue to whine about people being concerned about it while the rest of us actually do our best to save you and people like you from yourself.
Excellent article. A truly enjoyable read.
i have lived on the same area of coast and observed tidal guages for many years and i assure you sea levels have not changed one iota,that’s a fact,. global temperatures have been static for nearly 2 decades now,sorry but that’s also a fact.as for propaganda,if this event happened today i;m sure the usual fear and guilt merchants would be blaming it all on global warming and forecasting our imminent doom.that’s not a fact
Sigh . . . we seem to be in a DI drought rather than in a cataract. Must . . . read . . . something . . . interesting . . . !!!
Sorry for the delay; it’s due to a combination of variables:
a) I was out of commission for a couple of weeks, and catching up is hard to do;
b) The article I’m currently working on has a lot of research materials to read through and reduce;
c) My day-job work is temporarily very busy; and
d) I just filled up my customer loyalty stamp card at the excuse store!
LOL! NIce to know there’s a real person at the other end!
None of what you said is a fact. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. Sea levels have risen, see cited article below. Global temperatures have risen, see article below. Furthermore global warming is even a bit of a misnomer, as the real threat is massive climate change, but none the less temperatures have in fact risen.
And I just ate dinner, so I feel like world hunger has ended.
Seriously- the world’s problem with climate change and rising sea levels is a fact.
As always this story was DamnInteresting. My only problem now is that we haven’t had a story in over THREE months. At first I thought DI was holding out for DamnInteresting Thanksgiving story. Now I’m left wondering if there is going to be a Christmas story. Please don’t keep me jonesing into the new year.
Thanks for all the great essays.
has DI died? I miss my fix of interesting stories and I’ve already read through the entire archive.
Bla. Bla. Bla.
Climate is always changing, it has been for millions of years. But since you are confusing climate with decadal weather changes, let me refresh your memory. The paleocene, eocene, oligocene, miocene and pliocene periods of our planet’s climate history were all very warmer than it is now. In fact, when you look at the big picture, our planet is still in a cooling phase. Unless of course you are part of the crowd that would benefit from seeing the working class being taxed for simply being alive and exhaling co2.
Oh and here is a link that corroborates what I wrote.
Here in the Netherlands, billions were spent on “not repeating 1953”. General consensus of the Dutch politicians, should it happen, will be, “f**k it, just leave the water where it is”. Basically, they would admit defeat, and not bother to pump the water away, and spend the money on trying to use modern technology to have islands of villages with floating houses, as well as making more use of the higher grounds. This will be tricky, as the usual cry of, “The Netherlands is full enough”, there will be little land to use to rehouse those whose cities, towns, and villages are now under water. Most of the Dutch infrastructure, industry and agriculture, are centered in an area known as the Randstad. (An area with the four largest cities, being Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam, and Utrecht). All of this area produces much of the wealth of the Netherlands, and lies up to 5 meters under the surface of the sea.
It’s been a long time since a new story was published.
Out of interesting stories or out of interest to do one?
Please don’t be dead.
We have countless more interesting articles to share, in fact we have one in the final phases of preparation which is scheduled be published in the first few days of 2015. Spare time is always scarce this time of year, and this new article required a large investment of research effort, so it was just a little delayed. All is well.
12 days in Alan, 12 days in!
Those events are still discussed. The hero was a man on one vessel, Radio Officer Proudfoot who was in the singular position of being able to send weather reports that forewarned the emergency services of the danger that would engulf the eastern coast of Britain. He lost his life but the measures, such as could be mustered, were in place and thanks to him loss of life was to some degree minimised. The high water levels that overwhelmed Norfolk were caused by a high tide combined with the depression that caused the seas to rise well above maximum spring tide levels.
It is with thanks to R/O Proudfoot, with his totally unambiguous copper plate morse, that we owe this debt.
There was another freak incident in more recent times when an atmospheric depression affected the river Trent and the oxygen levels were depleted. Oxygen had to be vapourised and blown into the water to stop the fish from dying.
Now I know why the articles have dried up past year or so, Alan you’ve been busy doing the Daily Knowledge Podcast haven’t you? Recognise your voice a mile off, glad to get a fix using Audioboom’s new app anyway.
@Chris: Actually, the voice you are recognizing is that of Simon Whistler, our professional voice talent. He just happens to do the voice work for that other podcast as well. My voice is the one you’ll hear reading the end credits, and I have also recorded a few episodes myself (e.g., The Clockmaker).
Regarding the reduction in article publication frequency, this is simply a function of decreased free time, increased publication difficulty (longer articles, addition of the podcast, etc.), and an unwillingness to reduce quality for the sake of quantity.
Damn Interesting has always been a spare-time endeavor for me, so I become a bottleneck. This is especially true considering that I personally edit articles, produce the podcast, create most of the podcast music, create most of the article artwork, manage our social media, keep our server running through Reddit click-storms, code site updates, and generally manage our constellation of responsibilities, all in my spare time. And I also like to write articles on occasion.
So, I’m sorry that we cannot publish with the swiftness of our youth, but at least we’re not caving to the easy and lucrative clickbait-and-ads model that is gobbling up so much of the Internet nowadays.
This is an excellent site in all respects. Keep up the good work.
That was dam interesting!
“One of the immediate British responses to the flood was, rather predictably, the formation of a committee: the Departmental Committee on Coastal Flooding”
LOL ! :D thanks, this made my day !
Just another addition to this article: during WWII, many structures of the Netherland sea defence and land recovering systems were either destroyed by the Germans on their retreat or by the Dutch themselves as acts of sabotage, and these destructions were partly not being remedied and added to the damage in 1953 when the storm struck.
Besides, people are always wiser in the retrospective and things are always easier said than done, as the flood of Hamburg in 1962 proved so tragically.