THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Police and military personnel began evacuating 800 people from four villages in the low-lying northern Netherlands on Friday amid fears of a dike break following days of drenching rains.
Authorities said that a section of the dike along a major canal could give way and submerge hundreds of hectares (acres) of land under up to 1.5 meters (5 feet) of water.
"The chance is small" the dike will break, said Yvonne van Mastrigt, chairman of the regional policy team that ordered the evacuation. "But in the interests of security of people and livestock I must take this decision."
The evacuations 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Amsterdam come after a combination of torrential rain and powerful northwesterly winds have soaked the country and prevented water being pumped out to sea.
A quarter of the Netherlands is below sea level and 55 percent of the country is considered susceptible to flooding, but the country has learned to live with the ever-present threat of high water, and devastating floods are rare.
Residents forced to leave their homes were advised to stay with friends or families but a makeshift evacuation center also was opened in a nearby sports hall.
Water levels in rivers and canals across the Netherlands has been rising for days and authorities are on high alert for possible flooding and breaches in the thousands of kilometers (miles) of dikes that protect the country from inundation.
In the northern city of Groningen, staff at the Groninger Museum moved two exhibitions late Thursday from ground floor halls because of the rising level of a moat that surrounds the building. The museum was closed Friday.
Elsewhere in the north, which has been hardest hit by the recent storms, authorities deliberately flooded nature reserves to lower levels in drainage canals.
Some 85 farmers were advised Thursday to evacuate an area threatened by another dike breach but most refused and the dike held firm.
Even as the evacuation order was issued, the nationwide water authority Rijkswaterstaat issued a statement early Friday saying that all high water warnings it had issued the previous day had been withdrawn.
The national weather center predicted easing winds and scattered showers across the country — a significant improvement from the high winds and heavy rain of recent days.
Major rivers the Maas and Rijn that run through the Netherlands remain high and authorities in cities such as Maastricht and Dordrecht were closely monitoring levels and distributing sandbags to residents who live close to their banks.
In Doordrecht, near the port city of Rotterdam, the cellars of several houses were flooded, but no major damage or injuries were reported.