History of Europe

The night the water came

From February 16 to 17, 1962, Hamburg was hit by the worst storm surge in the city's history. After a number of dike breaches, around a sixth of the Hanseatic city is flooded. The water surprises many in their sleep, hundreds of people die.

The storm surge in February 1962 claimed 315 lives in Hamburg city alone. More than 20,000 people have been forced to leave the flooded areas for long periods of time, and several hundred have lost their homes forever. The material damage caused by the flood disaster is also enormous:many residential and commercial buildings, schools, supply lines and roads are badly damaged or completely destroyed.

Flooddisaster catches people unprepared

At 130 kilometers per hour, hurricane "Vincinette" swept across northern Germany in the night of February 17. It uproots trees, destroys roofs and forces the water of the North Sea into the German Bight and further into the Elbe. The residents of the Hanseatic city were unprepared for the storm surge. They are used to high water levels, but nobody expects the worst.

VIDEO: The storm surge of 1962 (44 min)

The German Hydrographic Institute in Hamburg issued a storm surge warning for the entire North Sea coast on February 16 at around 8 p.m. The flood is expected to reach a level of over 4.70 meters above sea level, more than it has been for more than 100 years. However, there is no talk of a danger for Hamburg, there are initially no separate instructions or warnings for the population of the Hanseatic city. People just go to bed in the evening without realizing the impending danger.

The first dike breaks in Cuxhaven

At 10 p.m. the first dyke breaks in Cuxhaven. The tidal wave moves up the Elbe in the direction of Hamburg. It is becoming apparent that a flood catastrophe of enormous proportions will hit the Hanseatic city. The water level in St. Pauli rose to 5.70 meters by 2 a.m. - higher than ever before.

Dike breaches in 60 places

The water flooded almost all of the dykes and dams in the Hanseatic city, breaking in 60 places by early morning. The water pours into numerous parts of the city, including the entire port area, Neuenfelde, Moorburg and Wilhelmsburg, sweeping away cars, fences and even solid houses, destroying roads and tracks. Hamburg's city center is not spared either:the floodwater penetrates as far as the town hall, flows into the basements of banks and taverns and breaks through the old Elbe tunnel. Many areas are cut off from the outside world, electricity and telephone are out, around 100,000 hamburgers are trapped by the water masses.

Wilhelmsburg worst affected by storm surge

Makeshift homes in a Wilhelmsburg allotment colony were completely submerged by the floods.

The Elbe island of Wilhelmsburg, with its 80,000 inhabitants, is hit the hardest. There the dike is not only too low and too steep, but also built from inferior material. It is quickly washed out and breaks, the masses of water pour into the district in tidal waves.

Directly behind the dyke to the Spreehafen, in a low-lying allotment garden, many people who were bombed out of the Second World War live in makeshift homes. If you don't wake up in time, you hardly have a chance. Others climb onto the roofs of their homes or into trees and wait for help, completely soaked in temperatures around freezing.

Police officer Helmut Schmidt initiates a rescue operation

In December 1962, Helmut Schmidt honored the soldiers for their service during the storm surge disaster.

A large-scale rescue operation begins early in the morning. Police Senator Helmut Schmidt, who later became Chancellor, acted immediately. Without caring about competencies and legal regulations, he calls for military and civilian help from home and abroad. He coordinates relief operations at sea and helicopter operations. Around 20,000 helpers are fighting in a race against the time to save the lives of the people trapped by the water. For many, however, the help came too late - 315 lost their lives in the floods, 207 of them in Wilhelmsburg alone. Five helpers are among the dead. The bodies are taken to a tent on the ice rink in Planten un Blomen Park and laid out.

Around 20,000 people are homeless

Numerous houses - like here in Neuenfelde - are destroyed by the flood.

The flood also makes thousands of homes uninhabitable:225 homes are completely destroyed, another 760 are badly damaged, and 11,245 homes are no longer inhabitable, at least temporarily. Around 20,000 people have to live in emergency shelters for a long time after the flood. The drinking water is also polluted:the Senate initiates a large-scale vaccination campaign to prevent epidemics. All residents of the affected areas will receive 50 marks as immediate aid, and all those affected by the flood will receive additional financial aid.

New concepts for flood protection

The greatest damage to the dikes occurred in the southern Elbe area, between Moorburg and Neuenfelde/Cranz. While soldiers and civilian helpers spend days repairing the cracks, the building authorities start planning a new dyke system at the same time - for reasons of space alone it is not possible to simply repair and raise the badly damaged dyke systems. The city is therefore investing in completely new protective systems and is creating a continuous flood protection line of at least 7.20 meters above sea level over a length of around 100 kilometers.

Since 1990, the city has repeatedly modernized and upgraded its flood protection systems. Depending on the location, the dike height is currently between 7.50 meters and 9.25 meters above sea level. But the measures will not be completed any time soon in view of climate change. According to scientific findings, Hamburg is well positioned up to the year 2050 in terms of flood protection. But for the time after that, provisions should be made now.