Catastrophe and Compassion
Like my colleague Becky Lower, I am moved by generosity in hard times.
Researching fiction always takes us in unexpected directions. This week was no exception. While researching floods along the east coast of England recently for a story, I came upon pictures and reports about the 1953 North Sea Flood, a massively catastrophic flood that killed 307 people in the eastern counties of England. The storm left the Netherlands utterly devastated. Over 1800 people died, 9% of their total farm land was inundated, 30,000 farm animals died, and over 10,000 buildings were totally destroyed.
While the material was no help in writing my story, which is meant to be set in 1815, it went straight to my heart for two reasons. The first is personal. My mother spoke of this flood; she always called it the “year of the Holland Floods.” Why was that significant in my family? The floods were caused by a horrific storm that struck January 31-February 1, 1953. We left New York by ship for Germany on February 9, 1953. It was a difficult crossing an a rather smallish troop ship, hardly a luxury cruise. I remember seeing swells above my head. I remember being thrown from my seat out of our cabin, into the hall, and against the wall. Did the storm churn up the Atlantic? I have no idea, but that crossing and the floods were forever linked in my mother’s mind—and therefore mine.
The second thing about the material that struck me was the generosity of strangers in the face of catastrophe. Evacuation of over 70,000 victims in the Netherlands was carried out using helicopters from the United States and amphibious vehicles from France, Italy, and other countries. The governments of Canada, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Germany—even England which had been badly impacted itself—all sent assistance. But governmental aid is just one thing. Civilians pitched in do what they could. Fundraising was world wide and particularly touching in former Dutch colonies such as Surname and Lower Antilles. An army of individuals bought bonds, contributed cash, or merely showed up to clean and repair in an outpouring of compassion and care.
It is what people do in a catastrophe: they care for one another. This bit of history was captured on film in Watersnood 1953, a little Dutch film (here with English subtitles), which appears to have come from a station in Suriname in cooperation with Multifilm Haarlem Holland. It shows the horror of the storm, its aftermath, and the extent of international aid and its importance to the people of the low countries. It ends with a plea for compassion and individual effort.
The catastrophe led to government reviews in both Great Britain and the Netherlands. The study resulted in construction of the Thames Barrier in England and the Deltawerken in the Netherlands. They’ve protected those costs for almost seventy years, and provided a basis for future efforts as seas rise and begin to threaten our coasts. It is beginning to appear that Dutch expertise may prove vital to all of us in the future.
Fiction and music inspired by the North Sea Flood of 1953:
For more information see:
Collier, Kiah. “Can the ‘Masters of the Flood’ Help Texas Protect Its Coast From Hurricanes,” The Texas Tribune, July 15, 2019. https://www.texastribune.org/2019/07/15/can-masters-flood-help-texas-protect-its-coast-hurricanes/ Accessed May 26, 2020
Hall, Alexander. “The North Sea Flood of 1953,” in Arcadia, 2013, no. 5. On Environment and Society Panel. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/arcadia/north-sea-flood-1953 Accessed May 26, 2020
Higgins, Andrew. “Lessons for the U.S. From a Flood-Prone Land,” New York Times, November 14, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/15/world/europe/netherlands-sets-model-of-flood-prevention.html Accessed May 26, 2020
Hill, Ed. “The 1953 North Sea Floods,” Floodlist, December 5, 1913, https://floodlist.com/europe/1953-north-sea-floods Accessed May 26, 2020
Rabon, John. “The Thames Barrier: A Brief History,” Londontopia, October 23, 2019. https://londontopia.net/history/the-thames-barrier-a-brief-history-protecting-london-from-the-sea/
RealEngineering. On YouTube, “Why Netherlands isn’t under water?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6DRRHXt-PA Accessed May 26, 2020
Caroline Warfield works in an office near her adopted city of Philadelphia surrounded by windows where she writes family centered novels set in the Regency and Victorian eras and nudges characters to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart.