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 IV: The DeltaWorks Plan
For many years after 1953, no one in the Netherlands talked about the flood or, rather, how they felt about the flood – how they suffered and lost and feared, the kind of catharsis that is often a staple of disaster relief.
What the Dutch did talk about was what to do, about making sure it wouldn't happen again. And then they acted, spending billions they somehow found in those lean years after World War II. They appointed officials and developed a master plan and restructured the bureaucracy. They rebuilt the levees and then raised them; they lengthened the beaches and shortened the coastline; they placed barriers in the water as long as the Eiffel tower is tall; they built enormous moveable sea gates that drop to the sea floor when computers sense dangerous rises in sea level.
Like New Orleans, which is a delta of the Mississippi, much of the Netherlands is a delta of three large rivers stretching far inland into Europe: the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt. When it comes to water, The Netherlands faces two challenges: keeping the salty North Sea out, and channeling the massive amounts of river water entering the delta from Germany and Belgium. To deal with this unique quandary, the Dutch devised an intricate system of beaches, canals, dams, ditches, dunes and gates to manage the water levels.
"It's a hate-love relationship," Aerts said of the Dutch's feelings about the water. "Sometimes we fear it, not only in our own country. When we see images like Sandy and Katrina, the Dutch are really with you guys in the U.S. On the other side, we love the water. We love swimming in the water, we love living near the water."
Professor Jeroen Aerts of the Institute for Environmental Studies describes the Netherlands' flood-safety measures in this extended interview.The Dutch call their mission of preventing floods "keeping our feet dry," but that's a cute euphemism. Keeping your feet dry actually means not dying in a flood, and, 1953 notwithstanding, they've been doing it successfully for centuries. The Netherlands literally means the Low Countries. Survival in these marshy, squishy wetlands required figuring out how to manipulate the water while cultivating the soil for farming and building. They first piled the dirt into mounds, living and farming along the sides of the hills. Then they built dikes around large plots of low lying wetlands, marshes or lakes. They circled the plots with canals to collect the water. Then they pumped the water out with windmills. The drained, habitable remains are called polders.
The 1953 storm showed it all wasn't enough. The government chartered a national program called DeltaWorks, transforming much of the country, particularly the South, into vast ribbons of steel and cement. Over a period of forty years, they built 350 miles of levees along the sea, and an additional 2,000 miles of inland barriers. Along with the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building, the project is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
They spend nearly a billion Euros on this every year (about $1.3 billion) – equivalent to roughly 0.2% percent of their GDP. (Money-wise, that's the equivalent of about $30 billion in the United States). Sixty years after the flood, Dutch officials are still not done. With levels rising, they probably will never be. Since 2001, the government has a policy to keep up with sea level rise through "coast sand replenishment." They match the rise inch by inch, scooping millions of cubic meters of sand from the ocean floor and placing it on beaches.
"We consider ourselves one of the safest deltas in the world," Wim Kuijken, the Delta Commissioner, told me. "But at the same time, our circumstances are changing. Nature is changing. And you don't want to wait for the next disaster."
So aside from raising dikes even higher, they are now widening rivers and even building floating homes so that living can continue impervious to rises in sea levels.
Inhabited land must be protected to resist a flood so severe, it's computed to have only a one-in-10,000-year chance of hitting.
The U.S. standard is every 100 years.