Among Holland’s more traumatic collective memories is that of De Ramp (The Disaster), the great flood which crashed through protective dikes and submerged farmland, hamlets, towns, and cities. No one used the word tsunami back then, but survivors spoke of a ten-foot-high wave that rolled inexorably across the polder land, destroying a large part of what it encountered. Much of the stricken territory consisted of islands, already somewhat isolated from the mainland, and the flood destroyed what few communication systems were left. Some islands were cut off entirely for days before rescuers made their way inland on vessels ranging from the fishing fleet to rowboats.
This flood, the worst in modern Dutch history, occurred during the night of January 31 - February 1, 1953, seventy years ago. Hurricane force winds from the northwest drove an exceptionally high spring tide to launch an unprecedented assault on the man-made constructions protecting parts of the provinces of South Holland, Zeeland, and Brabant. All along the dike people stood and watched the rising water, relentlessly climbing ever higher. Wherever a weak spot in the dike was found, sandbags were brought in by the truckload and packed in dense formation to prevent flooding. In the end it was not enough, and the dikes gave way. The bulk of them broke between three and six a.m. while the population was asleep.
An area as large as the entire province of Zeeland was flooded. 1836 People died, and 72,000 others were forced to leave their homes. 500,000 acres of land were flooded. Field crops were destroyed on 13.7% of the total arable land of The Netherlands. This included al- most a quarter of the country’s wheat, slightly more of the barley, 37% of the flax, and over half of the onions grown nationwide. The polders were immensely pro ductive, and this former sea floor was level and easy to till. This, of course, also meant that the floodwaters encountered few real barriers once the dikes had been breached. Along with the human toll, some 25,000 dairy cows drowned, 1500 work horses, half the national hog count, and 100,000 hens.
The statistics fail to do justice to the enormity of this flood, which caught the entire polder population unawares. When the sea is fifteen to twenty feet higher than the land on the other side of the dike, and that dike breaks, all hell breaks loose. There were farmers in the affected area who tried for a few desperate minutes to untie their cattle and horses from the stalls so that they would have some small chance of survival, but by the time they fought their way back to the house the icy water was shoulder high. Those in the house might have had time to get out of bed only to step in several inches of water. Some reports state that the water rose fifteen to twenty feet in a mere fifteen minutes. People sought refuge upstairs only to have the water level rising as fast as they could climb the stairs, forcing them from the second floor onto the roof in many cases. Few were adequately dressed, and some sat on those roofs for three days without food or water before help arrived. They were the lucky ones, because they were saved.
The Delta Works were begun shortly after the disaster, with enormous dams shutting off the flow of water between some islands, dikes raised and strengthened, huge breakwaters put into place. New solutions continue to be sought, as in the broadening of river beds to accommodate more water, a ban on building on river deltas, and the protection of vulnerable wetlands. The Dutch have fought the Water Wolf, as they call their ancient enemy, for centuries, will they be able to keep up the battle?