Deaths during the 1953 North Sea storm surge
S.N. Jonkman1 and I. Kelman2
From 31 January to 1 February 1953, a North Sea storm surge devastated coastal
areas of the United Kingdom, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Apart from enormous
economic damage and severe societal disruption, over 2,000 people died across the
three countries. This paper discusses the available data on loss of life in these three
countries and examines the application of these data for loss of life estimations and
general flood management practices.
1 Introduction and general description of the 1953 storm surge
Every year, floods cause enormous damage around the world. In the last decade of
the 20th century, floods killed about 100,000 people and affected over 1.4 billion
people. Although loss of life is often seen as the most significant consequence of
disasters, relatively few studies have focussed on the evaluation of historical
disasters and the lessons learnt. More than 50 years after the disastrous events which
formed the 1953 storm surge on the North Sea this paper discusses the available data
on loss of life, and discusses the application of these data for loss of life estimations
and general flood management practices.
Aim of this study
After giving a general description of the events and their damages (remainder of
section 1), the available data on loss of life in this event is discussed (section 2).
Section 3 deals with the application of this data in loss of life estimation for floods.
Lessons learnt and issues for future flood management are outlined in section 4.
From 31 January to 1 February 1953, a North Sea storm surge devastated coastal
areas of the UK, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Apart from enormous economic
damage and severe societal disruptions, over 2,000 people died across the three
countries. The floods occurred during a spring tide combined with low atmospheric
pressure causing elevated sea levels and strong winds piling up the water on shore.
Furthermore, the sea defences were reported to be in bad condition in all three
General description of 1953 storm surge
1 Bas Jonkman, Road and Hydraulic Institute, Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water
PO Box 5044, 2600 GA, Delft, the Netherlands
Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Civil Engineering
telephone: +31-15-2518443; fax: +31-15-2518555; email: email@example.com
2 Ilan Kelman, Deputy Director, Cambridge University Centre for Risk in the Built Environment
The Martin Centre, 6 Chaucer Road, Cambridge, England, CB2 2EB, U.K.
telephone: +44-1223-331715; fax: +44-1223-331701; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
countries, as limited priority was given to maintenance and strengthening of flood
defences in the post-war years.
In the UK, vast areas in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent were
inundated. The magnitude and extent of the effects of the storm surge which hit are
illustrated by Summers (1978):
On 31 January and 1 February 1953 a great storm surge, accompanied by
gale force winds, swept out of the north, causing widespread flooding of
coastal areas, and involving grievous loss of life and extensive damage to
property. The piled-up waters of the North Sea, whipped by the northerly
gales to huge tidal levels, smashed through the sea-wall defences in
hundreds of places from Spurn Head to Kent, scattering like proverbial
chaff before the wind thousands of tons of stone and concrete. The
damage extended over 1,000 miles of coastline and involved breaches in
the defences at some 1,200 sites. In some places not a mile of sea-wall
Parts of Belgium were also inundated. Of the 66 kilometres of coastline, 4.6 km were
severely damaged and at least 8 fatalities occurred (Martens, 2003).
In Belgium and the UK, only coastal areas were inundated, but the flooded area in
southwest Netherlands was much larger as the hinterland was below sea level. The
disaster caused enormous economic damage and at least 1,835 fatalities. About
250,000 people were affected and more than 47,000 cattle and 140,000 poultry were
killed. 3,000 Residences and 300 farms were destroyed, with more than 40,000
houses and 3,000 farms being damaged. Approximately 200,000 hectares were
inundated and the total material damage was estimated at 1.5 billion guilders
(http://www.delta2003.nl). Table 1 summarises the consequences.
Table 1: Overview of damage of 1953 storm surge.
Inundated area (hectares)
Economic damage (1953 values)50 million pounds
1.5 billion guilders
Although the scale of disaster differs amongst the three countries, the event
mortality—defined as the number of fatalities divided by the number of affected
people—is the same order of magnitude for the UK and the Netherlands. Data on
other storm surges shows that a 1% average mortality seems to be a good first
approximation (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Mortality for some historical coastal storm surges with the 1% mortality
line drawn. Data are from EMDAT (2004).
2 Data on fatalities during the 1953 storm surge
Fatality data have been collected from different sources and aggregated in fact sheets
by country which are
published on the internet
These death figures account for only the people who died immediately, not including
those who later suffered premature deaths due to the psychological and/or physical
toll exacted on them from having experienced the storm surge. Despite extensive
research and material published on this event, reported death tolls vary substantially.
Only statements with explicit numbers, including zero, are recorded in these fact
sheets. One important source which these fact sheets do not yet fully cover is local
For the Netherlands, two main sources state the number of fatalities by village
(Waarts, 1992 and Delta, 2003). The official death toll has long been 1,835, but
Slager (1992) found that the actual death toll was 1,836: a newborn boy who
drowned in Cappele had never been included in the official counts. The website
2,278 victims as dying immediately, but 483 married women were counted twice.
Each of these women is listed once under her birth surname and once as a married
woman under her husband’s surname. Subtracting the 483 double counts from the
2,278 total yields the 1,795 figure reported by Delta (2003) as being the total number
who died immediately. Holland (2003) then confirms that “The difference between
1,835 and 1,795 is accounted for [by] a number of people that died in an uncertain
period after the disaster because of the illness and suffering they were undergoing
during the first hours or days.”
For the UK, more sources are available, the most prominent being Grieve (1959),
Pollard (1978), and Summers (1978). Compiling many sources yields a total death
toll between 304 and 313 with 307 being the most common number quoted. In
reality, that figure refers to deaths on land in eastern England. In addition,
approximately 132 people died when the Princess Victoria ferry sank in the Irish
Sea. Nineteen others died in Scottish waters (Hickey, 2001) and several dozen were
killed when ships sank in the North Sea. One part of the UK Fact Sheet (Kelman,
2003) is displayed in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Example from CURBE Fact Sheet 3: UK Deaths from the 1953 Storm
Surge (Kelman, 2003).
For Belgium, the different sources report total fatality numbers between 8 and 22
(see Gerritsen et al., 2003). The highest estimates factor in fatalities outside the
coastal area, due to river flooding near Antwerpen. Most reports note that 8 deaths
occurred along the Belgian coast.
Flood fatalities are rarely examined across several flood disasters to identify trends in
medical causes of deaths along with the vulnerabilities which led to those deaths.
Investigation of relatively recent inland floods in the USA and Europe revealed some
patterns with respect to death causes and vulnerabilities (Jonkman and Kelman,
2005). However, higher-fatality events seem to exhibit different mortality patterns
than the smaller-scale events. Insights into causes and circumstances are important
knowledge and analysis needed for the mitigation of the potential consequences of
floods. Based on event descriptions, further discussion here examines the most
relevant causes and circumstances of the fatalities in the 1953 flood.
Causes and circumstances of 1953 flood disaster deaths
Data on fatalities in the Netherlands due to this disaster have been collected by
Waarts (1992) and Duiser (1989) from memorial volumes and official reports. Both
reports give loss of life and hydraulic circumstances by municipality. Overall, the
data covers 1,726 fatalities which occurred in 45 locations. Based on the descriptions
from memorial volumes, three categories of fatalities are distinguished: fatalities due
to high flow velocities, due to rapidly rising waters, and due to other causes. Table 2
shows the distribution of reported fatalities over the three categories.
Table 2: Categorised data on fatalities caused by the 1953 disaster in the
Netherlands, based on Waarts (1992)
Rapidly rising waters
High flow velocities
Most fatalities occurred at locations where there was insufficient warning and where
the water rose rapidly to form a deep flood. In addition, qualitative descriptions of
the 1953 floods in the Netherlands by Slager (1992) show that in the high-mortality
locations, large numbers of buildings collapsed due to the severe conditions and poor
building quality. As a consequence the poorest communities suffered most fatalities.
The numbers reported by municipality by Waarts (1992) and Duiser (1989)
correspond relatively well with the numbers given on http://www.delta2003.nl. See
Jonkman et al. (2003) for a further comparison of the numbers reported in different
Martens (2003) mentions that 8 coastal fatalities occurred: 7 in Oostende and 1 on
sea. Of the 7 fatalities in Oostende, 3 died in the city centre: 2 due to drowning and 1
due to a heart attack. The other 4 drowned when a house in Sas Slijkens flooded.
Other sources report higher death tolls for Belgium: between 10 and 22. See
Gerritsen et al. (2003) for an overview.
The high death toll is mainly due to the unexpected occurrence of the flood after
sunset and without warning. Death tolls were highest in seaside towns with low-
quality buildings, often consisting of wooden prefabricated houses. For example, 39
fatalities occurred at the Felixstowe prefab estate. At Canvey Island, the death toll
amounted to 58, with many people surprised in their houses, several of which
collapsed, after a sea defence failed. At Jaywick, many of the 37 fatalities were
elderly who were surprised or trapped in their homes.
An indication of the vulnerability of the elderly and the importance of building
collapse is in the following quotations:
And consistently, all round the east coast, the eventual death tolls showed
that it was the elderly, who went to bed early and had meagre reserves of
energy even if they had time to realise what was happening when the
water hit them, who were most vulnerable… It is significant that the
stretches along the stretches of coast where the casualties were heaviest –