In the wake of its devastation, Hurricane Sandy leaves New York with difficult questions about how the city could prevent similar destruction in another storm. The Netherlands is familiar with the risks of flooding. It has implemented numerous measures – some big, some small – to prevent a recurrence of the disaster that decimated that country in 1953.
With an eye toward how New York will prepare for the next Sandy, Josh Robin of NY1 News and Juan Manuel Benitez of NY1 Noticias traveled to the Netherlands in January to produce the special TV series, "Fighting the Tide." Robin also wrote this web-exclusive report about his trip.
Part III: The Levees
Before dawn on Jan. 13, I looked out the window of our Delta jet as we descended into Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, a former seabed some fifteen feet below sea level. To the left, the lights of fishing boats bobbed in the water. After all but sleepwalking through customs and baggage claim, we spotted Professor Jeroen Aerts waving to us through the glass. Aerts, 44, is a professor at the University of Amsterdam's Institute for Environmental Studies, tapped by the Bloomberg administration to consult on flood risks after Hurricane Irene. He was well into his research when Sandy hit New York, leaving the precise scope of his mission unknown for now.
The Dutch are among the world's tallest people. In fact, they joke it's Darwinism: short people don't thrive when you live below sea level. At well over six-feet, Aerts is no exception. He is trim, with closely cropped hair and glasses. He studied at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where his English grew flawless. It comes in handy since the American media discovered him after Sandy. He served as our tour guide, shepherding us around the first day from pre-dawn to night in his family's sedan.
"There are two main trends," Aerts told us. "One is sea level rise and increased storm frequency because of climate change. And secondly, we have the trend that more and more people are moving to cities and coastal areas. Why? Because they are attractive areas."
Aerts advises skeptics to simply look at it from the viewpoint of population growth. New York is already crowded. An additional million people are expected within many of our lifetimes.
"What you could do is start with adaptation measures," he said. "For example: so-called ‘no regret measures' like strengthening beaches and upgrading building codes in low-lying areas. Because you'll need those even if you do move up to installing surge barriers. Commission a study of possible surge barriers now, and worry about building them later."
Aerts is talking as he drives us around greater Amsterdam, stopping every hour or so to show us these subtle "no regret measures." Take Petten, for example. It's a medium-sized sea-facing town of brick homes about an hour outside Amsterdam. We arrive just as the sun rises and chimneys sprout wisps of grey smoke in the morning chill. With its salty air and earthen seawall protecting the village against floods, it reminded me of the Oakwood section of Staten Island, which flooded badly after Sandy. The one key difference is that at 30-feet, the Petten seawall is three times higher than the levee in Staten Island, which couldn't hold back Sandy's surge.
It was a similar thought later in the day in Noordwijk, along the North Sea coast southwest of Amsterdam. Noordwijk (Noord-wyke), a tourist town, is similar to Coney Island or the Rockaways – except for the fact that anyone who has seen both would agree the Dutch version is far better prepared against floods.
Everything along the beachfront seemed orderly and thoroughly modern. Hotels lined the waterfront, separated by a boardwalk and finally the beach. It used to be that the hotels were closer to the water. But amid concern of rising tides, authorities pushed the beach farther into the sea, by digging up sand far offshore and dumping it closer to land. They also elevated the beach above its normal level, so water would have to climb even higher before reaching the buildings. A concrete-bottomed levee was also placed between the buildings and the water. (The hotels complained it would block their guests' views – but it also guarantees their guests won't drown. And, as compensation, the government gave the hotels permission to erect raise temporary structures right on the beach.)
"In the Netherlands we have very high protection standards and in terms of sea level rise and these kinds of threats, the government decided to enhance the protection codes and to elevate all beaches on the Dutch coast," Aerts said.
While we studied the levee, dozens of ruddy-faced kids scampered along the sand, oblivious to the fact that it couldn't have been warmer than 25 degrees. The smell of frying haddock and cod from a vendor hung in the air.
Retrofitting beachfronts in New York would require major tradeoffs. There are homes and businesses fairly close to the water in the Rockaways and on Coney Island. One would likely need to uproot these properties or extend the beach far into the Atlantic to make room for the structures needed to prevent flooding.
Aerts also took us to Java Island, which he likened to Red Hook – both trendy former port areas that are a bit remote and highly susceptible to flood damage. You can't do "beach strengthening" in either place, because there's no beach; the water laps old piers and bulkheads. But tough building codes in the Netherlands bar Java Island homes from being lower than 14 feet above the water. As a point of reference, that's the level water reached at the Con Ed substation along the East River, which flooded during Sandy, sending off an electrical explosion that was widely seen on YouTube.