The Great Flood of Holland

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As a freelance journalist, Daniel Schorr covered the devastation of a flood that hit Holland in 1953. Dikes that had protected a third of the country for a century were overwhelmed, but the Dutch fought back.


What it means to live below sea level dependent on protective barriers I first learned on February 1st, 1953.


NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: Working in Holland as a freelance correspondent for The New York Times, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a call from a Dutch colleague who said that the dikes which had safeguarded a third of the country for centuries were in danger from the combined effect of a violent North Sea storm and freak high tides. I drove down to south Holland. Standing atop the great Viadra dike(ph) south of Rotterdam, I could see the water lapping up on one side; on the other, 15 feet below, lay fertile farm land and a group of farmers who showed no signs of evacuating. I yelled to them to warn of the danger of the rising water. One of them yelled back, `Where should I go? This is my home. I would rather drown here.'

In the ensuing days, hundreds of thousands from south Holland and the Ceylon Islands were evacuated with the aid of the allied forces in Germany. I flew on one American Army helicopter picking desperate people from rooftops and trees. Some 1,800 Netherlanders drowned.

Eight years earlier, the Dutch had been liberated from Nazi occupation. Now they had been invaded by their most ancient enemy, the sea, and once again they would fight back. The dikes and the windmills that powered the pumps had proved inadequate to cope with the storm surge, and so now the Dutch hydraulic engineers planned their counteroffensive. They would repair the dikes and dry out the land. They would build a huge sea wall connecting the Ceylon Islands to shut out the North Sea. That was completed in 1998, 45 years after the great flood.

But I can still remember Queen Juliana in boots, visiting stricken areas, wading through water, distributing food and clothing, and I remember, too, the veritable flood of relief supplies that poured in from the United States and other countries to a point that the queen went on the air to announce that some would be sent on to needy developing countries. This is Daniel Schorr.

HANSEN: It's 22 minutes before the hour.

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