On Saturday, January 31st, which was Princess Beatrix's 15th birthday, the storm provided the many people in the south-western part of the Netherlands who had only ‘just gone off to the seaside to have a look' with spectacular views. By high tide in the afternoon, the salt marshes outside the dikes were under water. In some places the sea was washing over the dikes. Still, most people were not worried. They expected the storm to subside during the night. Almost no one realized that the high tide that was to take place in the night of Saturday to Sunday was a spring flood tide.
From Friday, January 30th, a very severe storm with an area of some 1000 km, moved over Scotland towards the Duitse Bocht (the part of the North Sea off Bremerhaven in Germany). The strong northwest wind that accompanied this storm pushed the water in the North Sea in the direction of the English Channel.
The Storm Warning Service of the KNMI (Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute) issued a warning telegram late Saturday afternoon. After the 6 pm weather report, the newscaster read the following: ‘A severe storm is raging above the northern and western parts of the North Sea between north and northwest.
The KNMI warned of ‘a dangerous high tide'. The telegram reached few authorities. Many had not subscribed to the service. During that night the radio was unable to broadcast any more warnings. Dutch radio did not transmit from midnight to 8 am.
The night of Saturday, January 31st to Sunday, February 1st was two days after the full moon. The high tide that was to come at 5 am was a spring flood tide, in Dutch, a ‘giertij'. At first, most people thought that everything would not be so bad. Conventional wisdom had it that if low tide did not come, high tide would turn out to be better than expected. This was not to be the case. The storm continued to rage with wind-forces of 11-12 from the north/north-west. Gusts of 135 mph winds ripped along the coast. Many places were already in trouble before high tide arrived. About 2 am, the first water flowed over the dikes and the flashboards. The dikes began to burst about an hour later.
Low tide never came
By nightfall Saturday evening, the water should have receded. According to the tide- tables, low tide was around 10.30 pm. But the tide did not go out and the water stayed where it was. The driving force of the storm interrupted the tidal movements. Many people had never seen the water at such a high level during low tide. A few people who had been warned went into action. Some saw the danger on their own and went to work. Others went to sleep.
The dikes burst
The lower and less well-maintained dikes on the south side of the polders were the first to go. The first dikes to burst were at Kruiningen, Kortgene and Oude Tonge. At Stavenisse, the force of the waves gouged out an 1800 m breach. And even in Noord-Brabant, near Willemstad, Heijningen and Fijnaart, the dikes could not withstand the storm. It was the same story in the Hoekse Waard of Zuid-Holland at ‘s-Gravendeel, Strijen and Numansdorp.
Most of Schouwen-Duiveland was flooded. Only the dunes at the head of Schouwen and a few polders near Zonnemaire stayed dry. Except for the land on the lee side of the dunes and a few polders near Melissant and Dirksland, the whole of Goeree-Overflakkee was covered with water. Houses collapsed and were swept away by the current. The rising waters even caused the total destruction of some small villages. The hamlets of Schuring near Numansdorp and Capelle near Ouwerkerk were obliterated by the water. Not a house was left standing. Other places were more fortunate. At Colijnsplaat, where men had been trying for some time to keep the flashboards from breaking, a barge suddenly broke loose from its moorings, ended up in front of the cut and worked as a breakwater, sparing the town.
Other places were also spared. Schieland's high seawall, the Hoge Zeedijk, which lies between Schiedam and Gouda along the Hollandse Ijssel and which had to protect three million people from the water, barely held. Wherever the water went, people fled to higher-lying areas. To the village, to the dike, to the attic, to the roof. And they waited fearfully for dawn to break, in the hopes that the flood waters would recede.
The first telex messages, from Zwijndrecht and Willemstad, reached newsrooms about 4.30 am. There was no one there to read them, however, as there were no Sunday newspapers. The only people on duty were people at the radio news service of the ‘ANP' (Dutch Press Agency). From quarter past five that morning on, its employees began to read the reports that were steadily starting to come in. In the course of Sunday morning, the extent of the disaster gradually became clear.
Dawn on Sunday, February 1st revealed the true magnitude of the disaster. ´I looked out over an incredible expanse of water,´ said one eyewitness. Here and there, you could still see some roofs, a treetop or fragments of a dike. The rest was just water as far as the eye could see.
Initially the water receded, after all, it was low tide again. Some people then used that moment to flee from their farms to higher-lying village centres. Individual rescues began. People in boats went along the houses picking up people and setting them off in safer places.
Large-scale attempts at rescue organized by outsiders were not yet underway. And at the end of the morning, the water began to once more...
The second flood
The second flood on Sunday afternoon was the worst'. The water rose even higher than it had the night before. There was now only one option left: to get up and out onto the roof. Many of the houses that had withstood the night now collapsed. The water simply lifted the roofs off the walls. People drowned or drifted about on parts of the roofs or wreckage, out over the enormous expanse of water. Some drowned after all, others got stuck, washed up against the dike. Around five o'clock it grew dark. For thousands of people in the disaster area it was the beginning of a second night of wet and cold and thirst in attics, on roofs, crowded together on the dikes or in higher-lying houses.
Throughout Sunday there was very little help from outside. A few reconnaissance flights were carried out over the disaster area. The raging storm prevented large-scale attempts at help from the air. A few authorities visited Dordrecht and West-Brabant. However, even after a day, people were still not aware of the full extent of the disaster. No one knew that Schouwen-Duiveland, Goeree-Overflakkee and Tholen had virtually disappeared under water.
More rescue operations got underway on Monday, February 2nd. The first villages at the edges of the disaster area were evacuated. On the islands, the only rescuers were still individuals with boats. Fishermen, especially, managed to free many people from their perilous positions. Still, that Monday evening, the many people marooned in isolated houses, churches and farms on Schouwen-Duiveland and Goeree-Overflakkee, faced the third night and the fifth flood .
It was not until the afternoon that the first reconnaissance plane flew over Schouwen-Duiveland . Sommelsdijk (on Goeree-Overflakkee) was where the first relief packages could be dropped. Tuesday, February 3rd, was the turning-point. Only then did the rescue get well underway. Victims were evacuated from the disaster area.
Hundreds of ships brought aid workers to the disaster area.
The military took over the coordination of the rescue in some places. Food was dropped and helicopters were put into action. By Tuesday evening the disaster had practically ended. Though some people were still isolated there were no more victims.