Wallets open Dikes closed: Memories of the ‘Big Flood’ of 31st January and 1st February 1953

65 years ago today the most severe coastal flood of the late 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries occurred. It became known as the ‘Big Flood’ and resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people in England, and at least 2,000 people in the Netherlands and Belgium. This landmark event lead to the establishment of the Flood Forecasting Centre in the UK and resulted eventually in the building of the iconic Thames Barrier and associated flood defence, which today protects London. I recently discussed this event with Nadia Bloemendaal, who is a PhD student at the Vrije University in Amsterdam. She told me her grandmother, Willy de Graaff – Holtmark van Dijkerhof, used to tell her stories about this event. Willy very kindly agreed to do a interview for us and tell us her recollections of the flood.


“My name is Willy de Graaff – Holtmark van Dijkerhof, and I was born in Dordrecht on 22 April 1934. I lived there throughout my youth with my father, mother and older sister. I was 19 during the Watersnoodramp, my sister was 23.


I can remember they announced a Northwestern storm in the weather forecast on the radio. I cannot remember whether they were also talking about wind force or any potential threat to mankind, but they were announcing the storm itself. On Saturday, the wind was already picking up, and it kept intensifying during the day: the wind was howling and it was raining very hard. Very early on that Sunday 1 February, we woke up to the sound of the church bells ringing. Of course it’s not weird to hear church bells on a Sunday morning, but it was so early in the morning that we were questioning ourselfs whether something had happened.


That morning, when we were eating breakfast, our neighbour came to our back door. She told us that the dikes had broken and the islands (of Zeeland and Zuid-Holland) were flooded.  This sounded very ominous. When our neighbour left, we didn’t really know what to do. We went up to the attic to look out of our window, cause we were able to see the Noorderdijk from there. Behind the Noorderdijk was the river Merwede. The Merwede had a smaller tributary, the Wantij, and another, smaller tributary of the Wantij was called the Vlij. That’s how far the water had come already, so far that it went through the Merwede, the Wantij and the Vlij up to the Noorderdijk. Fortunately the water never reached the top of the dike, but it reached higher than we’d ever seen before. Before this, we’d never seen the water since the water level was usually too low.


We stayed inside that Sunday and turned on the radio. Since there were only a few communication channels back in those days, we only heard little but scary news reports from the nearby islands. The next day, a family friend came to our door (he was a commander at the Dutch Red Cross) and asked my sister and I to volunteer and set up a emergency hospital in a nearby school. He told us that the Hoekse Waard (island nearby Dordrecht) was flooded as well and people were sitting on rooftops or on the dikes, and they needed to be evacuated. That Monday or Tuesday, they managed to evacuate those people, and bring them to safety to Dordrecht.


The Red Cross, the first charity of that time, tried to arrange something, some kind of emergency hospital, a shelter, a place where people could be taken care of. We set up an emergency hospital at a nearby primary school, and used strechers and wooden benches to construct some beds. Everytime, large trucks and cars arrived at the schoolyard to drop off evacuated people. I can remember very vividly that a lady was carried in on a strecher, together with her newborn, whom she had given birth to just a few days earlier. They’d placed the baby in a shoebox and put that at the end of the strecher. Besides a place to sleep, people also needed food, since they were staying in the school for days to come. We improvised some kind of kitchen, and large amounts of food were brought in so that we could feed the people. This is how they organized the shelters in Dordrecht. It wasn’t until later that we heard about the large-scale devastation in Zeeland.


Back in those days, it took a lot more time to gather volunteers for these shelters, since no one had a cell phone at home. Within a few days, people started to realize that something had happened. This doesn’t mean that people on the islands (Zeeland) hadn’t organized help themselves. There might have been people who rescued others from trees and rooftops using their little (fishermen) boats. But there weren’t any shelters in those little villages. So people were transported over the Dortse Keel, and once they arrived in Dordrecht they were taken to the shelters, including ours, in trucks. The Dutch Military was asked to assist as well. We also received aid from foreign countries. They (I believe Belgium or France, or maybe even England) flew in with helicopters, and that way rescued people from their rooftops.


One of the ways to gather information in that time, was by going to the cinema. In the Dutch cinema they broadcasted, apart from the main movie, also a section ‘National and International News’. During one of those days right after the flood, we went to the cinema and watched some footage from the disaster area. Back in those days, no one was able to estimate the intesity and severity of this storm.


I don’t know whether people knew that the tides were connected to the lunar cycles. Even if they had known, I don’t think the general public would have understood what it meant when you would tell them. You can notice a heavy storm rolling in, cause it makes so much noise. But the intensity of the storm and the influece of the springtide, you don’t notice that until later. I was really impressed by it. I don’t think local authorities called off evacuations in advance. Maybe they moved to the attic to wait out the storm, but I cannot recall hearing anything about evacuations on the radio. Because they only broadcasted radio for a few hours a day, it wasn’t until a few hours later that we found out such a large disaster had happened only 50 km away.


After the disaster, a large crowdfunding campaign was launched entitled “Beurzen Open Dijken Dicht” (Wallets open Dikes closed), by Johan Bodegraven (red: he was a tv-presentor). We collected money ourselves as well by going door to door in our neighbourhood.


I always felt save living behind the dikes in Dordrecht. Every now and then we’d go cycling over one of these dikes, and I’ve never questioned the strength of the dikes. We’ve experienced high water levels before in Dordrecht. In the city centre, the houses were built on a small elevation. The doors and doorposts were made out of wood, but on the bottom they were made out of concrete with a small groove in it. Whenever the streets were flooded, people put a wooden board in this groove, so that their houses wouldn’t flood. Our street wasn’t flooded in 1953, but the city centre of Dordrecht was.


A lot of cattle was lost due to the floods as well. I can remember they had to remove those dead animals once the water levels were dropping again. All those cadavers were brought to a destruction factory in Dordrecht, where they were burned.


The water caused a lot of destruction and disruption. Everything was relocated and/or trashed because the water was obviously moving as well. Once the land was finally dry again, people had to clean up the mess, reconstruct the roads and start rebuilding the houses. It took a very long time before people could return to their villages or lands. But the Zealanders returned. That’s why on the province flag you can see a lion standing in the water, encrypted “Luctus et Emergo” – I struggle and conquer, the motto of the Zealanders. The lion battles the water but will never be scared by it. I love that character, that mentality, that you’re trying to adapt and find better solutions. They fought so hard to rebuild their dikes, but they did it.


I think it’s important that the we (the Dutch citizens) become more conscious of what we need to do, should such an event happen again, flooding large parts of the country. What will you do, where will you go, will you stay at home or will you leave in search for higher ground? Right now, no one has ever thought about that. People seem to be oblivious. We have become too dependent on the government, we are no longer thinking about this ourselves, the government will take care of it. Such a storm can take you by surprise, just like the Watersnoodramp took people by surprise. That all of a sudden your roof is ripped off, you’re floating around on a piece of wood, it’s storming so increadibly hard and the noise of the wind and the rain is so increadibly loud. I think the government should make people more aware, that people need to start thinking about an emergency plan instead of solely depending on those dikes.