On Sunday February 1st , a plane dropped three rubber boats. Beside these boats, there was no other intervention nor assistance from the world outside. Individuals who had privately owned boats or other vessels would try and save as many victims as possible. It took a relatively long time before organized rescue missions would take place.
Primarily fishermen in the mussel business from Zierikzee, Yerseke, Tholen and Fishermen from Urk sailed along submerged farms to rescue people from their unfortunate situations. “We sailed through the orchards with our little boat. I sat in the front and had to push away branches. People were sitting on their rooftops! We rescued twenty-nine people that morning. Some came down from their houses by climbing down the drainage pipes”, a fisherman from the mussel business recalls. People who were rescued were evacuated to safe locations or were given a temporary shelter. Many café’s provided shelter for the often soaked victims who then tried to dry their clothes near the coal stoves. “It smelled so bad!”, a woman comments.
The victims’ responses to the flood and the raging water varied. There were people who remained silent or who prayed and sang psalms while awaiting what was going to happen to them. Others became courageous despite their unfortunate situations and tried to save themselves and their loved ones as last resort. However, some people panicked and only cared about their own wellbeing. Some people even tried to save others, risking their own lives in the process. A women tells the story of how she, her husband and two children, were stuck in the cold water trapped in between floating wooden wreckage. They were saved by a young couple which floated towards them with their baby of only five months old. The young lady yelled at her husband: “We can’t let those people drown!” This heroic rescue prevented the family from drowning.
The Red Cross took action on Sunday morning February 1st. It soon became clear that this organization was not prepared for a natural disaster such as the North Sea flooding of 1953. The depots equipped in case of occurrences such as natural disasters, (‘rampendepots’) did not have any boots, lifejackets or rubber boats. Most of their emergency assistance took place at the outskirts of the disaster stricken area and consisted of providing shelter for the victims, providing them with food and something to drink, providing clothes, beds, blankets, towels and medicine and finally they provided first aid and set up little emergency hospitals. Only in a few places, they actually participated in the rescue missions.
The soldiers were mobilized as well on Sunday. Thousands of soldiers traveled to the south by train. In general, they did not venture any further that day than the outskirts of the disaster stricken areas. Here, they were mainly deployed to help rebuilt the dikes with bags of sand. On various locations soldiers would offer their help. Soon, the task of organizing ‘official’ rescue missions was handed over to the army. Airplanes were deployed and food drops took place.
The ‘Nationaal Rampenfond’ ( a nationwide financial aid in case of natural disasters) founded in 1935, was now utilized once again. Prince Bernhard became chair of the organization. The fund preoccupied itself with raising money for the victims. At the end of 1953, a grand total of ƒ 133.518.775,00 (€ 60.588.178,57) was raised consisting both national and international donations.
Monday February 2nd
Monday afternoon, volunteers from outside the disaster stricken area started to arrive to help out. Several organizations, among which Dutch and international army units, came to the rescue with boats, airplanes, helicopters and amphibious vehicle. From all over the country volunteers travelled to the disaster stricken area to offer their support.
A forgotten island
For a long time the outside world was not aware how bad the situation on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland was. The first reconnaissance planes did not fly over the island until the afternoon of Monday February second. Many people were still stuck in dreadful situations. This was also the case on Goeree-Overflakkee. Relief goods, however, could still be dropped in the area that day. That night many inhabitants of both islands faced their third night and fifth flood, while sitting on top of their isolated houses, churches or farms.
“In the afternoon around 14:00 a helicopter arrived. A line was lowered which I could grab from my position in our attic. I tied up my wife in the line, and then, I had to push her outside… into the water. She couldn’t swim and she was already eight months pregnant. The event was frightening, but you’d do anything to get out of there. I pushed her out of the attic and within a second the helicopter started to hoist her up. They took her and flew away, shortly they’d return to pick me and my daughter up,” a man recalls. This helicopter, a Sikorsky, was on February 1st 1953 the only helicopter in Dutch possession. A Belgian helicopter and several seaplanes also helped to rescue people.
Tuesday February 3rd
On Tuesday the rescue missions started to take off. Emergency services entered the disaster stricken area on hundreds of ships. People were rescued from dreadful situations and were brought to safety. Technically, the natural disaster came to an end on Tuesday night. People were still isolated from the outside world but the amount of casualties came to a halt. The Red Cross called for clothes, shoes, beds, blankets, etc, for the victims. People responded immediately to the call and started to donate their belongings, as a result more materials than needed were collected in a short amount of time. Many volunteers offered to help out as well or offered to host some of the victims.
In various locations in the disaster stricken area shelters were opened, however there were also many shelters located outside of the disaster stricken area. One of the largest shelters was the ‘Ahoy-hal’ in Rotterdam, thousands of refugees were housed here. An entire wing of ‘Het Loo’, Queen Juliana’s palace, was made available to house elderly refugees. Employees of the Red Cross, the ‘Vrouwen-hulpkorps’, girl scouts, boy scouts, students, doctors and nurses all tried their best to aid the victims. Social workers provided mental support when needed. Those who had lost their family members and houses where provided with consolation and the metaphorical shoulder to lean on. Even a confused woman who wore her mourning clothes for fifteen years already (and who was given a new brown civilian’s dress in the shelter) was given the necessary attention.
In shelters, where everyone was registered, the poor victims were housed and distributed over hosting families, who lovingly took care of them. Both the evacuees and the host families, however, had to get used to the new situation. Many evacuees were traumatized. Moreover, many of them had never left home before. They had difficulties with settling down in their new environments. Youths who were evacuated without their parents, however, had less trouble adapting. “I had the time of my life,” a woman recalls, “me and my friend were evacuated and had to live with a family which lived above a military residence. We often secretly went downstairs to take a look.” At the end of February the first phase of the evacuation plan was coming to an end. Over 100.000 people were evacuated at the time.
Countries from all over the world sent relief goods to the affected areas. Argentina sent 680 blankets and 500 bedsheets, Germany sent 12.000 rubber boots, the Scandinavian countries sent 40.000 sponges and wooden ‘readymade’ houses, England donated candy, Greece sent a plane containing provisions, among which 45 crates of currants, India sent 5 tons of jute bags, Italy send a train containing 1.000.000 sandbags, Switzerland sent 2.000 pairs of socks, and this is only a fraction of everything that was donated. An endless wave of materials and goods entered the Netherlands. The Red Cross took care of the distribution process, which was a tremendous task to undertake.
Individuals came up with various initiatives to raise money: the collecting of empty bottles, the collecting of coupons, little chores in exchange for money, sports competitions, ‘Snertveldslag’ (soldiers would sell soup made from peas), fairs, lotteries, fashion shows, concerts, art expositions. The money which was raised was sent to the victims of the Flood. Additionally, individuals who did not have any money to donate, did various chores to raise money. For instance, an elderly man was shining shoes in the postal office in exchange for some money. Two little girls made a lovely diorama in a shoebox and asked those who wanted to see their arts and crafts project, a couple of cents in exchange. Fundraising committees were created for example: “People who smoke help out” (‘Rokers helpen’). Four Dutch broadcasting companies all worked together and set up the initiative ‘Opened wallets, closed dikes’ (‘Beurzen open, dijken dicht’), which was broadcasted on the radio and later turned into a book entitled ‘De Ramp’. The proceeds from these initiatives were also donated to the victims of the North Sea Flood 1953.
When the water level finally went down, it became clear to what extent the region was destroyed. The entire region was littered with pieces of wreckage, destroyed pieces of furniture, rubble from houses that had collapsed and carcasses of deceased animals. Moreover, everything was covered in a thick layer of mud. The Dutch Federation of Female Volunteers (‘Nederlandse Federatie voor Vrouwelijke Vrijwillige Hulpverlening’) dedicated themselves to the task of cleaning. To help them, ‘slik- and sopploegen’ (additional cleaning organizations) were created. These consisted of groups of women from Friesland, Gorinchem, Lekkerkerk, Twello and Waddinxveen. Other groups of Dutch women decided to cook for those who tried to rebuilt the area and, of course, the cleaning organizations. During the spring and summer of 1953, the girl scouts and students of the ‘huishoudschool’ also helped with the cleaning. The most unpleasant job was getting rid of the carcasses of deceased animals. This was primarily done by men from the disaster stricken areas in so-called ‘kadaverploegen’. The carcasses were transported with karts, wagons and ships to disposal companies.
The ‘Kadaverploegen’ also encountered the bodies of drowned individuals. Human remains were taken to special rooms where their relatives could identify them. Occasionally, this was an increasingly difficult task since the bodies were not always easily recognizable or identifiable anymore. In these situations the relatives had to pay close attention to the jewelry, clothes, or shoes of the victims, to make sure that the drowned individual was indeed their missing relative.
In Zeeland 131 individuals remained missing. It is commonly assumed that these persons drowned, but their bodies were never found. To their relatives, their disappearance must be horrific. “Years on end I’ve been searching for my brother and had hoped that someday I would find him again. It is horrific, to not know what happened to him. But he is still missing nevertheless.”, one man recalls.
Aid for children
Children who became ill after their hardships and the misery resulting from the North Sea Flood, were brought to special recovery resorts where the calm and save environments could help them recover. For healthy children which survived the North Sea Flood, a variety of activities was organized. Thousands of children were offered holidays in the form of daytrips or summer camps in the Netherlands, or even in Italy during the summer of 1953. Even during the winter, activities for the children were still organized.
Aid for housewives
The men often stayed behind in the disaster stricken areas to help cleaning. They lived separated from they evacuated wives and children. This proved to be very difficult to some, who’d miss their families. Others enjoyed working hard and living ‘carefree’ since they did not have to provide the necessary care their families for once. The women, however, who were housed in foster homes and had to take care of their children on their own, were having a more difficult time. Approximately 1.000 housewives who due to the stress could no longer cope with the demanding household chores and the nerve wrecking evacuation situation, were allowed to recover in recovery resorts as well. In addition to the well deserved rest, they also organized lectures on the relationship between men and women, raising children, and healthy nutrition. The women could now discuss problems regarding marriage, family and religious matters amongst themselves and in little groups.
Eventually the first evacuees could return home again. Back home they often had to start anew and build a safe home once again. Yet memories of the Flood and the loss of loved ones remained.
Quotes from: Slager, Kees: De Ramp, a reconstruction