When the sea struck, local telephone exchange employees desperately appealed for aid by calling every organisation they could think of, often until the moment their equipment was put out of order by the rising water. Their calls, in the middle of the night, over the weekend, too often went unheard.
A student spending the weekend at his parents' home on Schouwen-Duiveland and the owner of a radio shop in Zierikzee built a transmitter and sent out an S.O.S.-signal from the stricken area. Because of their inexperience it took a long time for other amateur radio operators to make contact with them; once contact had been established, it was found that their signal had been picked up as far away as Italy. During the first days amateur radio operators with portable equipment arrived from all over the Netherlands to help restore communications in the isolated area and pass on requests for and offers of assistance.
Zwijndrecht and Willemstad were the first municipalities to make mention of an emergency situation in a telex on February 1 at about 4.30 a.m.
Fishermen from Urk
The first people to arrive in the flooded lands of Goeree Overflakkee and Schouwen-Duiveland may have been fishermen from Urk. A number of their fishing boats were anchored in the harbour at Breskens. On Sunday, after the first news of the storm disaster, they travelled to Breskens by bus and on Sunday night, when the storm was still raging, set sail with all boats which had not sustained damage (several cutters had been thrown onto the quay by the waves). They made contact with Radio Scheveningen and informed the authorities: the Department of Public Works, the Dutch Navy, the Red Cross. They sailed through the breaches in the dykes in smalls boats and rescued people trapped on rooftops.
Shelter, money and goods
In the areas nearest to the disaster zone schools and community centres were made ready to receive evacuees. Red Cross units called 'columns' collected clothing, beds and medicines for the destitute flood victims. The appeal met with such a massive response that soon far more goods were available than required.
At the same time the National Disaster Relief Fund, established in 1935, was put back into service. Within a few days Prince Bernhard, the Prince Consort, took on its chairmanship and paid employees were hired because the fourteen volunteers were no longer able to deal with the task in hand. The National Disaster Relief Fund focused on raising funds via account no. 9575. In the end 137.8 million guilders were collected, an incredible sum in those days. This money was intended to compensate people for lost furniture and such, as well as some smaller items such as benefits for widows and orphans, children being sent away and the like.
To begin with, every family was given new sets of linen (an initiave of the Red Cross). Deciding on how to distribute the money received by the National Disaster Relief Fund proved far from easy: should all victims be paid the same amount for lost furnishings? After all, different situations had existed before the flood! Should the money be paid out in cash? Patronising mayors feared money being wasted. In the end, it was decided to create five compensation categories and to pay out in cash. The amount came to about six thousand guilders for an average family who had lost everything.
Poll-takers visited people to establish what damage they had suffered. Of course, some people complained that damaged goods were listed as still sound and so ineligible for compensation. Alternatively, some people told of generous assessment.
Thousands of soldiers and civilian employees of the four branches of the armed forces put in great efforts during this national disaster which claimed the lives of 1835 victims in all.
On Sunday February 1, 1953 alone, the day on which the scale of the disaster became clear, over four thousand army soldiers swung into action to provide every manner of assistance to the population of the stricken areas. This number was to rise to well above ten thousand in the following days.
Eight of the soldiers providing assistance were themselved killed.
The army, navy and air force did everything within their power to save what they could. Breached dykes had to be closed, sand bags filled. Combining strengths, the three branches of the armed forces in the end put 350,000 kilos of sand bags in place, often manually but sometimes dropped from planes or helicopters.
However, emergency relief involved far more. While the navy used sloops to evacuate those in need and recovered bodies from the water, army personnel quickly set up temporary hospitals and field kitchens. The army's signal unit was working 24 hours a day to re-establish contact with the most remote villages. Each island had its own units to provide local assistance: in Tholen it was the task of the artillery, in Goeree-Overflakkee the engineers were used and the commandos covered Schouwen-Duiveland. Mobilised reserves offered people protection from the threat of looters.
The supply of food and medicine and other goods mostly took place by air. In addition to the sole Dutch military helicopter at the time, the Sikorsky S-51 'Jezebel' of the Marine Aviation Service, the air force and navy planes - many dozens - frequently came into action. Also, the air force bases at Gilze-Rijen, Valkenburg and Woensdrecht were opened up immediately to planes and helicopters from the USA, England, Switzerland, Belgium and France. In the end, a fleet of 200 aircraft and 46 helicopters took part in the mission.
After twelve days of intensive cooperation, larg-scale assistance came to an end. Most soldiers returned to their own bases on February 12, although some two thousand remained active in the area for a further two weeks. Their main task was raising the level of the dykes. This work had been completed by the end of February 1953.
We dropped sandbags
From the Army Courier, 1953: En route to Krabbendijke, where they are waiting for us.
The first part of Zuid-Beveland that we reached looked like an oasis in the desert. Green grass, waterways and ditches, people and livestock, in short: alive. Until we came to the railroad, crushed like a toy, telegraph poles crashed everywhere like matchsticks. Then came water and breached dykes here and there. Time for the dropping crew to swing into action. Bundles of sandbags are stacked in front of the opened hatch. Behind the bundles are two men, secured with a thick rope, wearing leather helmets and goggles. One man sits on the floor of the plane, his legs drawn up to enable him to push the stack away when the time comes. New bundles are placed near the open hatch.
Then we see Krabbendijke. First we circle the village to find the dropping area. We are not the only ones; ahead of us a colleague, probably the X 2 or X 3, is also dropping down. A sharp turn, with the tip of the left wing pointing downwards, puts us on his trail.
Suddenly, we see a tiny field with a tiny figure waving at us. It is right in the middle of the village, which is not ideal, but no doubt it's the only option. Twice the bell sounds: prepare for dropping. Then it sounds once more, the command to start. The bundles of sandbags fly down. Second time around. Stack those bundles. The bell, twice, then once. Start dropping. We are joined by a US plane and a third air force Dakota. Drop those sandbags, in ever increasing numbers. The four planes go around like a merry-go-round: systematically, unerringly, dropping ever more sandbags. There can never be enough of them!
We returned to base. Right across Zeeland. Pernis loomed, lights, in full operation and...no water. The moon rose, or at least so people said. We did not notice and were barely aware of touching down at Valkenburg. For we had seen Zeeland and the islands of Zuid Holland. All seemed quiet and peaceful there now, but we knew that was not how it really was. Deeply moved we got off the plane. We had dropped sandbags over Krabbendijke....
When the water levels in the flooded areas went down, the situation on the ground was indescribable. Wreckage and debris of collapsed houses were everywhere. Those houses which still stood were often covered in mud up to 1.80 metres or more.
The Nederlandse Federatie voor Vrouwelijke Vrijwillige Hulpverlening (Dutch Women's Voluntary Aid Federation - FVVH), established in 1951, actively embarked on relief and countless clean-up duties. (Predominantly female) ‘scrubbing teams' also arrived from Friesland, Waddinxveen, Lekkerkerk, Gorinchem and Twello. Other women's groups supported the cleaners and other volunteer workers by cooking for them. In the spring and summer scout troops and domestic science schools also joined in.
The worst aspect of the clean-up involved the so-called carrion removal teams. These were mostly made up of local men. They removed dead livestock. They also helped where possible to identify the human remains found in the fields for months after February 1st. In areas where women and children had been evacuated, the clean-up teams led a pioneering existence for the time being.
Help from abroad
Other countries were quick to react. Red Cross organisations from many countries, NATO allies and countries on every continent sent relief supplies, food, manpower and money. A few of the many diverse gifts received by the victims from other European countries are listed below.
From Germany: 200 toy animals and toys and chocolate from the German Youth Red Cross; from Italy: (among others) 10 typewriters, 10 outboard engines, 2500 plaid blankets and 415 plastic toys (a novelty at the time); from Liechtenstein: 364 kilos of potatoes; from Austria: 6 crates of thermos flasks, 75 000 kilos of Portland cement, 13 boxes of chocolate and confectionary; from Switzerland: 3000 handkerchiefs and 1000 pillows and mattresses. The Swiss Youth Red Cross donated 2400 schoolbags, which were distributed in Nieuw Vossemeer, Stavenisse, Middelharnis and Zierikzee.
The Scandinavian countries came up with a very special gift: they sent wooden prefab houses to the stricken areas. In many cases these houses ar still being lived in today; at most, they have undergone some modernisations.
Goods were sent not just by European countries, but from all over the world, for instance: Algiers sent food supplies, including 100 kilos of macaroni. The Union of South Africa sent 180 bottles of port amog others . Indonesia's contribution included 2000 sandbags; Iran's Red Crescent supplied 9000 kilos of rice.
From Israel the victims of the Flood received, among others, 49 glasses frames and 6500 crates of oranges. Surinam sent 10 000 kilos of sugar and 75 sacks of coconuts. Many countries sent outer clothes and underwear, bedding and babyclothes. Turkey sent blankets, from New-Zealand came shoes. The United States and Canada donated goods worth millions of guilders, and no doubt the 1000 kilos of coffee from Jamaica met with a warm reception from the many temporarily displaced victims.
The 1953 Flood did not just hit the Netherlands. It claimed over 300 lives in England and in Belgium 25 people died. Denmark and Germany also suffered its effects.