How Germany keeps the sea at bay
Without dikes, no human life is possible on the German North Sea coast. The dikes keep the land dry during floods and protect humans and animals from the often heavy storm surges.
Everyone has to work on dike construction
Dike construction is a job where everyone really needs to help out. In the Middle Ages, draconian punishments were imposed when someone neglected his dike duties. This sculpture in Otterndorf on the Elbe estuary shows what a drudgery dike construction is. For centuries this work was done by the coastal residents themselves, in addition to working in the field or stable.
The North Sea flood of 1962
In February 1962, the coastal regions of Germany and in particular around the city of Hamburg were flooded from February 16 to February 17. A total of about 60,000 homes were destroyed and the death toll amounted to 315 in Hamburg alone.
An old-style water irrigation system in East Frisia next to a pumping station. Inland water is pumped outside. The system works even at higher water levels in front of the dike. The gates in the dikes have given their name to many places in East Frisia: Greetsiel, Carolinensiel, Bensersiel, Neuharlingersiel etc.
Drainage through the Sieltor
A dike should let the water "out" — of course. But in the case of the North Sea coast, where the land is sometimes below sea level, water collects and must be drained. This is where the so-called Sieltor in the dikes comes into play. It is opened when the water level is lower at low tide, and then the water can drain into the sea.
The Pale Rider
Dike construction is cooperatively organized and financed by contributions from residents, who also elect chairpersons, aka dikemasters, beach birds or chief sealers. Regular dike inspections are not carried out on horseback, as they were in the 19th century. Theodor Storm created a literary monument to the dikemaster with the "Pale Rider".
Dike construction a hundred years ago
"Who does not want to die?" Every child knows this saying on the North Sea coast — even if they don’t even speak Plattdeutsch any more: "If you do not want to dive, you have to give way". This photograph from the North Frisian Klanxbüll shows the dimensions: workers here are barely recognizable, while the dike extends to the horizon.
When the water breaks
A broken dam built to contain the swollen Elbe river during floods is pictured in front of the village of Fischbeck in the federal state of Saxony Anhalt, June 10, 2013.
Sometimes the army is also needed
In the event of a particularly high tide or a storm surge, soldiers from the Bundeswehr may be called in to haul sand bags in the hundreds. With their help, the dikes are weighted from above and thus stabilized. In addition, they are also raised a bit.