The ‘great flood’ haunted the Dutch for 70 years

Chiem de Vos still can’t forget the screams “My baby is going to drown” from his neighbors when the worst natural disaster hit the Netherlands exactly 70 years ago.

The horrifying images of men, women, children and livestock diving in the icy floodwaters that engulfed villages and thousands of hectares of farmland during the 1953 flood are still etched in the memories of many. Dutch, a country with a third of the area below sea level.

Exactly 70 years ago, on the night of January 31, 1953, a fierce storm from the North Sea combined with rising tides caused sea water to overflow a dike in the southwest of the Netherlands, causing a terrible flood, causing more than 2,500 people in the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain were killed, including 1,836 Dutch.

Houses submerged in water during the 1953 flood in the Netherlands.  Photo: AFP

Houses submerged in water during the 1953 flood in the Netherlands. Photo: AFP

On that fateful night, the levee protecting the Chiem de Vos family and the beautiful little village of Heijingen about 40 kilometers south of Rotterdam broke. De Vos was only 7 years old then, suddenly woke up and heard the howling of the storm, the falling trees, the desperate cry of his neighbor: “My child is about to drown”.

“In the house we had a plot of land for growing vegetables, raising chickens, pigs, cows and an orchard. A big wave up to 4 meters high hit and washed everything,” de Vos recalls.

More than 10% of the people in the village died. Today, a memorial to the dead is erected in the middle of the village.

The shock made the whole Netherlands stunned. The very next year, the country launched an ambitious Delta Works plan for the world’s largest flood prevention project with a series of breakwaters and concrete dikes. This flood control work was completed in the mid-1980s.

But 70 years later, rising global temperatures and sea levels are once again reviving the cataclysmic obsession, making climate change a central topic of celebration.

“Even if the dike is built higher, when the sea comes in, nothing can stop it,” said de Vos, 77. “That’s what I’ve always been afraid of.”

“Due to climate change, in recent years, flood survivors have become increasingly anxious, constantly asking the question ‘will the tragedy happen again?'” Johan van Doorn, 59, historian living in Heijingen, said.

When the Delta Works project was completed in the 1980s, the message was sent to the coastal province of Zeeland that the area was now “safe,” he said. “But we’re seeing a dramatic change in the climate over the last 10-15 years.”

The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) says sea level rise in the Netherlands is one of the most serious consequences of global warming.

KNMI says sea levels have risen by up to 25 centimeters off the Dutch coast between 1900 and 2020, and by 2100, water levels will rise by between 34 centimeters and 1.25 meters, depending on the country’s emissions-cutting efforts. mankind.

Dutch rescue force during the great flood in 1953. Photo: AFP

Dutch rescue force in the great flood in 1953. Photo: AFP

The Netherlands is finding a way to adapt to this problem, accepting the fact that some areas can be flooded, instead of trying to build sea dikes like Delta Works.

But van Doorn wonders if these measures will be enough. He referred to the river bursting that caused flooding in the Netherlands and many parts of Western Europe in 202, saying that those who survived the 1953 flood “will never be able to sleep peacefully” during storms and floods. .

De Vos has devised a strategy to avoid a similar nightmare. He instructs his 14-year-old grandson to build his future home in Veluwe, a highland in central Holland, far from the raging North Sea.

Hong Hanh (Theo AFP)

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