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NY1 Web Extra: Fighting The Tide, Part VI

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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 VI: Oosterscheldekering and Maeslantkering

A 40-minute drive from Capelle, the town that flooded 60 years ago, is the Oosterscheldekering. We visited it on our third day, driving through a snowstorm. The Oosterscheldekering has a funny name but it was built for a serious cause: to prevent the North Sea from flooding into residential areas, like it did in Capelle and so many other places.

The Oosterscheldekering is a series of barriers between the North Sea and the Oosterschelde, the saltwater lake that separates three islands at the southernmost point of the nation, not far from the Belgian border. It has 62 steel doors that rise from the side of a long causeway, which can be lowered to the seafloor when sea levels grow dangerous high.

The Maeslantkering at the mouth of the Meuse River in Rotterdam is a similar concept. (‘Kering' means barrier in Dutch). When seas are calm, two enormous hollow steel arms hug the riverbank. It keeps the Meuse River open for river traffic into Rotterdam harbor. When sea levels rise to dangerous levels, the arms draw together in a V-shaped vise, blocking the approaching water from overwhelming the port, and with it, the city.

The metal arms at the Maeslantkering are each as long as the Eiffel Tower is high (and each of them is twice as heavy as one Eiffel Tower). When the arms close, water rushes into holes in the metal, sinking the arms and completing the vise. It took six years to build, at a cost of €600 Million Euros ($880 Million). Computers are programmed to operate the arms automatically, when the sea level rises to three meters or higher. Aside from yearly testing, it's only been used once, in 2007, when water levels hit precarious heights in a winter storm. The water pressure is intense once the arms are mobilized; it's believed to be the equivalent of 70,000 cars pushing against it.

As impressive as the Maeslantkering is, it's the Oosterscheldekering that stays in my mind. That's partly because of the circumstances of our visit there. Ria Geluk of Capelle was our tour guide, and she had just told us her story and showed us the remains of her town. The snow had stopped, but it couldn't have been warmer than 20 degrees outside as we piled into our rental car and headed southwest, trying to beat the sunset to get a final glimpse before returning to Amsterdam and, soon after, New York. I was driving our rental car, feeling paranoid about black ice. It didn't help that my blood sugar had plunged from having no time to stop for something to eat or drink. I fished out some granola bars I had bought in New York, left over from the plane ride from JFK.

Windmills (the modern kind) rhythmically swiveled in the wintry gusts. Trucks zipped by. We passed an abandoned village, a crumbling tower the lone reminder of civilization. And then it came into view: the Oosterscheldekering. Sixty-five pillars lining the causeway over the frigid channels, connecting the gates that keep the sea back. We pulled into a viewing spot that is surely much more inviting when it's not mid-January.

Construction on the 5-mile long Oosterscheldekering started in 1976 and was complete in 1986. Queen Beatrix, by then 49-years old, christened it with this memorable dedication: "The flood barrier is closed. The DeltaWorks are completed. Zeeland is safe."

Engineers initially envisioned a far simpler, less expensive design: simply damming the Oosterschelde. But that would have forever changed the composition of the water, killing saltwater aquatic life. The total cost: about $4.7 billion in today's dollars. It's been used 23 times since, the last time in 2007.

"We found out that the cost benefit analysis of all our works is positive," said Kuijken, the nation's Delta Commissioner. "So the cost benefits analysis of prevention in this country is favorable – above waiting and seeing what happens and then cleaning up the mess."

I asked him if New York should build a storm surge barrier.

"It is an option, but that is really something to work out with the authorities in New York," he said. "It is one of the options. But I understand very well that it is a big decision, so, well, when do you make the decision? I don't know. But the plans are there."

The Netherlands' delta commissioner, Wim Kuijken, talks about how the Dutch have prepared to fight flooding in this extended interview.

I still had an important question for the experts: Aren't the sea gates dangerous? It may protect everyone on one side, but if it's built in New York Harbor, what about those on the side where the water levels are left to rise – like the Rockaways and all of Long Island's south shore?

The answer is, according to Aerts, is that you can't just build the seawall and leave. The other side would need to be shored up with projects like dunes and levees.

"If you are on the outside of a seawall, then you are of course exposed to flooding," he explained in an email after I returned to the U.S. "That is why I suggest strengthening the beaches of the Rockaways; these beaches will lie outside of the proposed surge barrier system for New York City, so you will have to protect the Rockaways with other measures." It's been done before: the Rotterdam port area is not protected by the sea walls, but its buildings are raised "and hence is relatively safe," Aerts wrote.

A major player in the decision will be Shaun Donovan, President Obama's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who held a similar position under Bloomberg before leaving for Washington. The President recently tapped Donovan to lead the federal response to Sandy. Donovan also recently traveled to Netherlands, where he visited much of what we saw.

Donovan came to Staten Island in early February for a photo op with the Mayor. He and Bloomberg were announcing how the city was beginning to spend the $1.8 million in federal disaster relief money it had gotten. Of that sum, $140 million are going to "infrastructure resiliency," which would be doled out after competitions to find the best ways to spur economic growth and better protect utilities.

Their event was held at a famous Staten Island pizzeria called Goodfellas. We asked Donovan what he had seen in the Netherlands, and what could work in New York. He did not sound enthused about a storm barrier:

"People like to focus on large barriers or other things. Some of the most innovative ideas are small-scale things that might help a business like this put their mechanicals higher up, so the next time there's a flood the repair is going to be much less expensive. So it's a lot of small-scale things like that that I've seen that have been real innovations that I think we can look at as well."

There is a barrier in the Thames River in the U.K, opened in 1982. The closest storm barrier to New York is in Stamford, Conn. Built in 1969, it's credited with preventing damage in that city's downtown and waterfront areas.

Sea gates to protect New York could take more than a decade to build and could easily run in the tens of billions of dollars. Not many people recommend immediate construction, which would require not only vast sums of money, but also approvals from an alphabet soup of government agencies, each with its own power and agenda.

Cuomo's team says it will study the idea. Bloomberg is opposed to it, but at least one of his would-be successors, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, is interested. It's possible that successive federal, state and local administrations will bat around this issue for years before deciding. It may take another major flood.

Back at the Oosterscheldekering, we wrapped up our work. Snow collected in banks, swept by the wind. A boat pulled into a small harbor nearby. We drove to Amsterdam long after sunset on the same road that we had come, past the dark fields of Capelle.

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