On the last week-end in January, 1953 -- just 25 years ago -- disaster struck the Netherlands, south-eastern England, and to a lesser extent Belgium.
On the last week-end in January, 1953 -- just 25 years ago -- disaster struck the Netherlands, south-eastern England, and to a lesser extent Belgium. The North Sea swept in over the low-lying countryside. More than 1,700 people lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. Spurred on by the tragedy, the authorities have taken steps to improve their sea defences, and try to prevent such a disaster even happening again.
SYNOPSIS: The reason was a combination of several northerly gales and the high spring tides which are normal at this time of year. Most of the east coast of England was affected; the towns of Essex and Kent, on either side of the Thames Estuary, were hardest hit. Canvey Island was almost completely submerged. 58 people were drowned there, and virtually the whole population of 13,000 had to be evacuated.
Even central London, 40 miles (60 kilometres) from the river's mouth, was threatened, but escaped serious damage or loss of life.
The Netherlands suffered much more severely. Dikes were broken at scores of places in Zeeland and South Holland. The islands at the mouths of the Schelde and the Maas were virtually submerged. More than 1,400 lives were lost, compared with about 300 in England.
300,000 people lost their homes. Much of the inundated land was good farming country, ruined by the salt for agricultural production for several years to come. Farmers also lost thousands of horses, cows, pigs and poultry.
On both sides of the North Sea, the first priority was emergency repairs. Servicemen and civilians set to work. Other countries sent troops, engineers and hundreds of thousand of sandbags to help ??? the gaps. The next spring tides were expected in two ???. It was a race against time. But the emergency defences held.
convey Island 25 years later. Something has been done. New sea walls rise thirty feet (10 metres) or so above normal high tide. But the threat is increasing, because south-east England is slowly tilting downwards towards the sea. And schemes for a barrage across the Thames, to give London complete protection, are held up by rising costs. What has been introduced is an elaborate warning system, to minimise the danger of loss of life.
The Netherlands has a bigger problem -- and has shown a more determined response. More than half the country lies below sea level, and much of its history has been concerned with the struggle to reclaim and protect the land from the sea. The tragedy of 1953 led to the Delta project -- the damming of the estuaries of several major rivers between the islands of Zeeland. Seven years ago, the scheme was going ahead fast. It is due for completion before this year is over. Specially designed cable hoiste moved the concrete blocks that make up the barriers into position.
Down go the blocks, into the water. New roads have since been built along the completed barriers, which have improved communications in the Netherlands. And thousands of people living behind the dams can feel reasonably safe from the threat of the sea.