Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Awash in Civilization, Redux

William Broad writes today in the NY Times about other nation's experiences with flood control, in particular the ongoing projects of Netherlands to protect its cities. (Big HT to Brdgt).
On a cold winter night in 1953, the Netherlands suffered a terrifying blow as old dikes and seawalls gave way during a violent storm.

Flooding killed nearly 2,000 people and forced the evacuation of 70,000 others. Icy waters turned villages and farm districts into lakes dotted with dead cows.

Ultimately, the waters destroyed more than 4,000 buildings.

Afterward, the Dutch - realizing that the disaster could have been much worse, since half the country, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam, lies below sea level - vowed never again.

After all, as Tjalle de Haan, a Dutch public works official, put it in an interview last week, "Here, if something goes wrong, 10 million people can be threatened."

So at a cost of some $8 billion over a quarter century, the nation erected a futuristic system of coastal defenses that is admired around the world today as one of the best barriers against the sea's fury - one that could withstand the kind of storm that happens only once in 10,000 years.

The Dutch case is one of many in which low-lying cities and countries with long histories of flooding have turned science, technology and raw determination into ways of forestalling disaster.

... While scientists hail the power of technology to thwart destructive forces, they note that flood control is a job for nature at least as much as for engineers. Long before anyone built levees and floodgates, barrier islands were serving to block dangerous storm surges. Of course, those islands often fall victim to coastal development.

"You'll never be able to control nature," said Rafael L. Bras, an environmental engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who consults on the Venetian project. "The best way is to understand how nature works and make it work in our favor."

... In humanity's long struggle against the sea, the Dutch experience in 1953 was a grim milestone. The North Sea flood produced the kind of havoc that became all too familiar on the Gulf Coast last week. When a crippled dike threatened to give way and let floodwaters spill into Rotterdam, a boat captain - like the brave little Dutch boy with the quick finger - steered his vessel into the breach, sinking his ship and saving the city.

"We were all called upon to collect clothes and food for the disaster victims," recalled Jelle de Boer, a Dutch high school student at the time who is now an emeritus professor of geology at Wesleyan University. "Cows were swimming around. They'd stand when they could, shivering and dying. It was a terrible mess."

The reaction was intense and manifold. Linking offshore islands with dams, seawalls and other structures, the Dutch erected a kind of forward defensive shield, drastically reducing the amount of vulnerable coastline. Mr. de Haan, director of the water branch of the Road and Hydraulic Engineering Institute of the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, said the project had the effect of shortening the coast by more than 400 miles.

... "Nature will throw big things at us once in a while," [Bras] said. "There's always the possibility that nature will trump us."
When it comes to the problems with flooding that cities face, New Orleans is peculiar, but it is not unique. Humanity has a history of dialogue with environment that is a repository of knowledge that can both legitemize and inform rebuilding cities in the Gulf Coast -- a dialogue that includes more and more environmental preservation. Failing to resolve these problems for New Orleans (allowing it to grow to its previous size) will not solve the environmental problems faced by other American cities.

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