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How Hamburg recovered after the catastrophic flood of 1962

How Hamburg recovered after the catastrophic flood of 1962
Emergency workers drive a boat through a flooded residential area in Hamburg during the disaster. Photo: picture alliance/dpa
After the flood catastrophe in western Germany, we looked into how another devastating flood in 1962 impacted the country - and how Hamburg had to rebuild itself and heal the wounds.

Severe floods have taken place throughout German history, but none so deadly as the Hamburg flood of 1962, also known as the North Sea Flood, and the recent floods in the western regions of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia that have killed at least 180 people, with dozens still missing. 

There are some parallels between these two disasters, and perhaps something to be learned. 

What happened in northern Germany?

It’s been almost 60 years since the North Sea Flood of 1962; the last natural disaster in Germany to claim hundreds of lives in recent history, after the most recent flooding events.

Driven by the storm called Vincinette over the north German coast, the flood hit Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, on the night of February 16th to 17th. This storm flooded the river Elbe, causing an intense flood wave 5.7 metres above sea level which broke the city’s flood security system in 60 different locations.

The country hadn’t seen a natural disaster of this scale in years: 315 people in Hamburg and 35 elsewhere in northern Germany died, and the homes of 60,000 people were destroyed. The flat, marshy area between the two branches of the river Elbe, Wilhelmsburg, was one of the worst affected areas, with most casualties. 

Geographer Professor Dr. Beate M.W. Ratter, of Hamburg University and the Helmholtz-Zentrum hereon, told The Local that the flood was a “huge shock for the population”. 

People being rescued in Hamburg during the flooding. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Gerd Herold

How did it impact people?

Owing to the unexpected nature of the flood, residents were caught completely off guard. Reminiscent of the floods we’ve seen in recent weeks, warnings to people were released, but through some technical issues, misunderstandings and an incomprehension of the potential scale of the storm surge, they were not effectively acted upon in time. 

A sixth of the city was already flooded before an appropriate response could be organised. Assistance was needed for the citizens to leave these heavily flooded areas, and consequently around 26,000 helpers were recruited in a completely unprecedented emergency operation led by Hamburg’s minister of the interior, Helmut Schmidt. 

The flood devastated communities. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa | Lothar Heidtmann

These people were drafted in from the fire department and the Red Cross, as well as the German armed forces and international volunteers (engaged by NATO). With this aid, around 10,000 residents were evacuated and provided emergency shelter. 

What was the reaction?

Professor Ratter, who has studied the effect of the Hamburg flood on residents’ cultural memory and consciousness for several years, said the disaster is still in the minds of many residents in Hamburg today. 

Prior to the flood of 1962, Hamburg hadn’t seen a storm surge in over a hundred years. Much like with the floods two weeks ago, the idea of a flood disaster can seem incomprehensible when it hasn’t occurred in recent history.

Within the Hamburg context, Professor Ratter notes an “awareness gap”. Hamburg has a well-known storm surge risk due to its location, but because it hadn’t experienced something like this, the idea that severe flooding could happen was just not in people’s minds. 

As Professor Ratter explained to The Local, the “openness and preparedness of the people is just as important as the technical preparedness”.

It’s important also to consider how the communities in Hamburg pulled together not just in the moment of disaster, but in the years to come. Commemorations take place each year and memorials can be found in parts of the city. 

A water level indicator with a sign of the height of the water in St.Pauli after the 1962 flooding in Hamburg hangs in the Elbe Island Museum in the Wilhelmsburg district. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

In 2012, the 50 year anniversary took place, which was a huge event involving exhibitions, speeches and other acts of remembrance. Professor Ratter highlights the importance of commemorative work like this and collective memory, and how it must be worked for: 

“I think the personal wish is to forget the disaster, but the collective demand is to remember and to stay alert for next disasters,” she said. 

How did the city recover?

The strong flood defences we know Hamburg to have today were prompted by these disastrous scenes from 1962. Prior to this, although the risk of storm surges was known and protection from these was discussed, focus had to be placed on rebuilding a heavily damaged city after the Second World War. 

Following the disaster, however, millions of Euros were invested into constructing new flood protection systems, increasing their height and strength, and a new contingency plan for such disasters was also implemented.

Hamburg’s flood protection site at Baumwell, pictured in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Markus Scholz

The water-retaining height was raised and many dikes reinforced. The flood defences have been expanded and routinely updated in following years, with over 100km of public dikes and walls among various other defences.

There have since been storm surges which have exceeded that of the North Sea Flood, but these have taken place, albeit with some damage, without the catastrophic scenes of 1962.

Is the flood of today bringing back memories of disasters like the Hamburg flood?

The flooding of recent weeks has affected a greater area of Germany than that of 1962, but it seems to have been almost as unexpected.

Despite warnings from the complex European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), which was set up shortly after the Elbe and Danube floods of 2002, there appeared to be a mismatch between these warnings and the subsequent action taken by authorities on the ground level.

It’s safe to say that not many expected the floods to be of such intensity and power; people were completely overwhelmed. But there are also questions over what the German government and local authorities could have done differently. 

What does this mean for the future, then? The use of the warning systems is already being reconsidered, with effective, prompt communication and action needing priority. 

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As it’s an election year in Germany, it could have big implications.

The North Sea Flood of 1962 triggered the political rise of Hamburg’s interior minister Helmut Schmidt, reported the Spectator recently, due to the way he handled the crisis. 

He went on to become German chancellor, and remained one of the most respected German politicians around until his death in 2015.

However, another major angle under consideration is that of climate change. As weather systems are becoming increasingly extreme and ruthless, many attribute that to global warming. Experts say the world will experience more frequent extreme weather situations, urging the need for immediate action. 

The devastation in Mayschoß, Rhineland-Palatinate after the recent floods. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

READ ALSO: How the extreme flooding in Germany is linked to global warming

For now, though, Germany has to negotiate the structural and financial damages caused by this latest disaster, as well as come to terms with the loss of lives and livelihoods. 

As Professor Ratter noted with the Hamburg flood, the long-term shock and effects of this disaster are likely to persist in collective memory for years to come. 

So, as the water from the clean up and recovery of bodies in western Germany continues – and the devastation becomes ever more clearer – perhaps we can turn to memories of previous flood disasters, like the 1962 North Sea Flood, to find hope in healing.


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