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Dutch Flood Controls a Possible Model for New Orleans

In February of 1953, a high-tide storm blew in from the North Sea, breaching The Netherlands' famed system of dikes and levees. One thousand eight hundred people were killed in the worst flooding in modern Dutch history.

Hydra Engineer Han Jkvrijling witnessed the flooding. "I was a little boy so I remember well that the roof of the warehouse beside our house was blown off and laying in our garden and my father had to go. Because, I realized afterwards, that he was writing in the newspapers. So, he had to go to the disaster area to report on it."

Like New Orleans in the U.S., The Netherlands is predominantly marshy delta land. Its major cities, like Rotterdam and Amsterdam, are below sea level: hence the series of dikes and levees first built in the Middle Ages.

Dutch society, government, and culture were built around controlling the water. "In the very old days we lived, each family on its own mound, and then you didn't need the sort of government,” Han Jkrijling told us. ”But then it was important to dike the area between the mounds also to protect your agricultural area and not only your own house. But then you need a sort of organizational government for the maintenance of these dikes."

After World War II, Dutch politicians decided to spend tax money on military defense and reconstruction. The Netherlands flood control system was neglected. "We learned in 1953 that to your own peril you forget to maintain the dikes." After the flood the Dutch government moved forward with an $8 billion, 30-year program to strengthen its flood control system. The centerpiece is 2.4 kilometers of gates that control access to the North Sea. Another engineering marvel is a massive storm surge barrier at the mouth of the Rhine River, which protects the port of Rotterdam.

"This is the storm surge barrier at Maeslant,” explained Mr. Jkrijling. “And it consists of two huge doors that are semicircular. And these doors float. And when the storm surge is coming these doors will be moved to the center of the river by two giant space structures that are the size of the Eiffel Tower. And, when these doors meet each other in the middle, they are filled with water and sunk to the bottom of the river."

The Dutch system is based on probability. Han Jkvrijling says the country is protected for everything except a storm that would come once in 10,000 years. By contrast, New Orleans is protected to a level of flooding once in 30 years. Meaning, every 30 years a storm would come along that could flood the city. In his mind, protecting New Orleans is a matter of political will and money.

Mr. Jkrijling was not surprised at what happened in New Orleans. "No, not afterwards. We were not aware, of course, of the design frequencies in New Orleans, but afterwards you are not surprised. We are only surprised that it is so lowly protected. The protection is so low for our ideas."