Foreign News: Disaster

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Whirling down from the northeast Atlantic, a tiny but intense low-pressure area widened last week as it swept toward the pushing tides of the North Sea. The wind and the tides met and joined in mutual fury, then smashed at the British Isles and the Low Countries. Dikes crumbled. Whole islands, villages, cities were swept underwater. Ships sank at sea and capsized in ports—even at docks. Rivers writhed and burst their banks. Over a million fled. Other thousands clutched rooftops or twirled crazily on rafts and small boats to await rescue or death. Other hundreds died—too swiftly to be counted at once.

There was almost no warning. What had been only an angry sea storm at night exploded before dawn into a rampage that raked the coastal lengths of The Netherlands, Belgium and northern France, and the southeastern coasts of England. Pushing at the mouths of rivers and canals, the wind-driven tides drove floodwaters far inland—across 40 miles of The Netherlands in some areas, even into Germany as far as Düsseldorf (90 miles from the Zuider Zee), well up England's Thames into the streets of London's suburbs.

A mournful tolling of churchbells and the scream of sirens awakened Netherlanders at 4 a.m.; it was already too late. Waves chewed like bulldozers at the historic dikes of Holland, breaking through in at least 70 places, to reclaim what centuries of Dutch ingenuity had taken from the sea. It was perhaps the worst Dutch disaster since St. Elizabeth's Flood in the Middle Ages, in which thousands lost their lives. In the Frisian Islands to the north, the flood crest went as high as 30 feet. Floodwater lapped at the outlying parts of Rotterdam (pop. 650,000) and poured over Dordrecht (pop. 70,000) a little to the southeast. In a matter of hours, roughly a sixth of The Netherlands' 13,000 sq. mi.—an area where 1,000,000 Dutchmen make their homes—was devastated.

In Belgium, another great area—homeland to some 3,000,000—was swept by floods. In Ostend, one of the cities worst hit, the wind tore a baby from the arms of a woman struggling to escape and tossed the child into swirling water in the street to drown. In Antwerp, 120 yds. of docks crumpled into the Scheldt estuary.

Across the Channel, from the Orkneys south to Dover, the low-lying British coast lay beaten and flooded. Here & there a lonely church spire rose above scenes of desolation. Dozens of bodies and thousands of head of livestock floated dead on the floodwaters. Norfolk, the hardest hit, was first to report high casualties—17 bodies found floating on the flood waters at Felixstowe, scores of other deaths—including at least nine U.S. servicemen and their kin from the East Anglian bomber base in Hunstanton. On the west of Britain, the storm took 128 in one blow when it swamped and sunk the ferry Princess Victoria on the run from Stranraer, Scotland toward Northern Ireland.

This week the known dead in four countries reached more than 1,000, and authorities feared an even greater toll.

Several hundred others were missing, and damage had climbed to millions of dollars.