Friday, November 16, 2012

Window Into the Past: The Flood of 1953

This series will showcase historical research I have done in order to write the biographies of the Wesselo siblings. This research spans the time from 1865 (when the first sibling was born) until 1989 (when the last of the siblings and spouses died). The focus of this series is sometimes broad – dealing with nation-wide events – and at other times very local. It’s always related to something a specific ancestor encountered, but without using sources that name that ancestor.


The Flood of 1953 – known as the ‘Watersnoodramp’ in Dutch – is engraved in the memories of the Dutch people. Even the generations born after ’53 know about it and most have seen the black and white images of entire villages swallowed up by water, only a few rooftops still above the water. The flood was caused by a combination of high tide and a storm tide, caused by a certain type of severe wind blowing in just the right direction. The storm, bringing the flood with it, struck the Netherlands on the night of Saturday 31 January 1953 and the morning of 1 February 1953. 1,836 people died that night, most casualties occurring in the most southern coastal province, Zeeland. But because this province was hit so hard, many people tend to forget that other parts of the Netherlands also flooded. One of those parts was Rotterdam – where Lodewijk Wesselo and his family were living at the time.

Saturday evening, eleven o’clock. It’s still low tide, but the Geldersekade has already flooded. In the following hours, more and more of the lower lying parts of Rotterdam are inundated with water. Unrest among the citizens turns to fear when around three o’clock the water rises high enough to seal some parts of the city, including a hospital, off from the rest, the flooding forming islands where buildings are on higher ground. Around half past five a dike in the south of Rotterdam is no longer high enough to stop the water and an area 150 hectares is flooded. Everywhere in the city people are evacuated and sandbags are placed by the fire department and volunteers to stop the water. The city is in total chaos, as the storm hinders efforts of emergency services. Especially the elderly have a hard time getting to safety.

It’s not until half past six on the morning of 1 February that the water level finally starts to drop. Everybody heaves a sigh of relief, for Rotterdam has narrowly avoided a disaster. The damage is enormous and it will take days before the entire scale becomes clear. With the dawn the first outside aid arrives. By nightfall, people from all over the country have come to Rotterdam to help. But soon it becomes clear that the islands south of Rotterdam have been hit much harder, and volunteers are redirected to those areas. In the days following the disaster, the Ahoy halls in Rotterdam become the central aid point for refugees coming from the south.


Part of Rotterdam in 1953, the flooded areas are visible as pale blue circles on the map. Stationssingel 61 is the address where Lodewijk and his family lived (upper pin), they kept their feet dry, barely. The Ahoy is also indicated on the map (lower pin). Clicking on the picture will make it larger.


Sources:

General information about the flood in first paragraph: Inez Flameling, Hoogwater: 50 jaar na de watersnoodramp (Den Haag: Ministerie van Verkeer & Waterstaat, DG Rijskwaterstaat, 2003).

Specific information of Rotterdam in the rest of the article: Kees Slager, Watersnood (Rotterdam: De Buitenspelers, 2010), page 446-447.

Picture credit:


The picture shows a small part of a loose inlay map from Hoogwater: 50 jaar na de watersnoodramp by Inez Flameling (see general source above). I scanned part of it and created an historical map overlay in Google Earth. The pins with addresses were added by me.

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