In the wake of its devastation, Hurricane Sandy leaves New York with difficult questions about how the city could prevent similar destruction in another storm. The Netherlands is familiar with the risks of flooding. It has implemented numerous measures – some big, some small – to prevent a recurrence of the disaster that decimated that country in 1953.
With an eye toward how New York will prepare for the next Sandy, Josh Robin of NY1 News and Juan Manuel Benitez of NY1 Noticias traveled to the Netherlands in January to produce the special TV series, "Fighting the Tide." Robin also wrote this web-exclusive report about his trip.
Part I: Capelle
The horror came quickly to the Dutch town of Capelle.
It was 60 years ago, two days after a full moon. Dwight D. Eisenhower had just been inaugurated as the 34th president of the United States. In the Netherlands, Princess Beatrix was celebrating her 15th birthday. And in the village of Capelle it was card night in the Geluk home. A couple from the neighborhood had come over to play with Ria Geluk's parents, bringing their own three children so 6-year-old Ria and her older sister wouldn't be bored.
Seven-hundred miles northwest, a deadly storm was lashing into Scotland, pushed by a strong northwest wind. Forecasters at the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute issued a warning telegraph, predicting dangerous high tides. A newscaster on state radio read it on-air.
They didn't hear the news in the Geluk home; nor did many of their neighbors, or their countrymen. The radio broadcasts those years shut down at midnight. Few heard the two a.m. church bells sounding the danger. The 135-mph winds simply muffled the tolls.
It was only at four in the morning, from the frantic knocks of the local doctor that the Geluks and their neighbors learned it was no ordinary winter storm in the Dutch coastal providence of Zeeland.
The levees burst, the doctor said.
None of the adults knew what to do. There was always a danger of floods in the Netherlands, but that's what the dikes were for. That trust wasn't misplaced. Keeping the water at bay was an emblem of Dutch history. There hadn't been a serious dike breach in the region for centuries.
But this time, as the low tide came and went, the pools of icy seawater never receded like before. In the Geluks' home in Capelle, Ria's father and two farmhands milked the cows and set them free to run for their lives. But the cows sensed the danger and wouldn't budge.
Ria Geluk describes the flood of 1953 in this extended interview.Today, recalling that night almost exactly 60 years ago, Ria Geluk: "We didn't have any idea what to do if the dikes broke."
The girl whose parents played cards with their friends on that stormy night is now 66. It's mid-January during our visit to The Netherlands. Snow is crunching under our feet as she leads us through the town of Capelle, where just two homes remain from 20. We are shivering in the freezing temperatures, but Geluk doesn't wear a hat or gloves. She possesses that admirable European trait I can only describe as hardiness.
She tells us the story in her hometown, and in an interview just before at a nearby museum dedicated to the flood. Six decades haven't dulled her recollection of the terror: The icy, briny water creeping into the living room. The power cut. The panicked dash to the second floor, the family carting what they could: chairs, cheese, bread, a half a bucket of milk. There were nine people in all – Ria and her sister; their parents; the friends; and her father's two workers.
"We were sitting there with nothing around us," Ria Geluk says now. "Just water."
They waited, for what no one knew. The storm was too severe for rescue. Geluk says there was but a single helicopter in all of the Netherlands.
By the afternoon of Sunday, February 1, even the second floor was no longer safe. There was one floor left – the attic – but her father decided it was too dangerous, the beams poised to collapse if the water reached higher. On the roof they all sat, in the wind and the cold with the swirling water just below them, the thick clouds above them, though not thick enough to obscure the view across the road.
There was her grandparents' house. Geluk's father tried to shield Ria from the unfolding sight. Her father's brother, Ria's uncle, was clinging to a wooden plank bobbing in the churn, trying to get his parents to leave their flooded home behind.
"He says to his parents 'Come with me,' but they couldn't do that," Ria Geluk says now. "They were 80 and 73. These people couldn't do that anymore. It didn't work. So they stayed in the house, and maybe 15 minutes later, the house collapsed and they drowned. And my uncle was very lucky, that sitting on this door, this wooden door, that he floated away, and four hours later he arrived at another house in the other village."
In the museum, the story has her crying. She seems surprised at the tears. She doesn't tell this story often. Not in this detail, at least. On Monday, Feb. 2, 1953, the water ebbed and a fishing boat rescued the nine from the roof of the house. They were safe, unlike many of their neighbors, or countrymen in that area. Of Capelle's 100 residents, 42 had died, including Geluk's grandparents.
The final total toll: 1,836 dead in the Netherlands; that would be the equivalent of about 20,000 in New York City today. There were hundreds of others killed in Belgium and the United Kingdom. The storm would take countless animals, too, including the cows her father tried to save. Days later, survivors would find bloated animal carcasses alongside those of their owners – all strewn among the infinite mud-soaked detritus that pointed to a life in the Netherlands before the great flood of 1953.
After telling us her story and pointing out which houses survived, and which didn't, there's one more thing Geluk wants us to see. It's a metal marker the shape of an ocean wave that someone has placed on the exterior wall of one of the two homes that didn't succumb to the tide. We would have missed it if Geluk hadn't pointed it out. It was easily ten feet above the ground. That's where the water finally stopped climbing.