Dutch Sea Masters Reach Out to U.S. after Katrina
AMSTERDAM The Netherlands' history is the tale of an endless battle against the sea.
Now, the low-lying country wants to share its experiences with U.S. regions hit by Hurricane Katrina.
Famed for clawing back land from an encroaching sea and building one of the world's most formidable flood defense systems, the Netherlands is sending experts to the U.S. Gulf Coast to help clean up after Katrina.
The category 4 storm slammed into the U.S. southern coast late last month leaving nearly 900 people dead and devastating New Orleans.
The Dutch Transport and Water Affairs Ministry said it had sent a team of water pumping experts to Pointe a la Hache, south of New Orleans, to help get rid of the water. They plan to stay for a month, but could remain longer if needed.
The Netherlands, much of which lies below sea level, suffered a similar calamity 52 years ago when hurricane-force winds and an exceptionally high tide breached the famed Dutch dikes in more than 450 places along the southwestern coastline.
More than 1,800 people were killed, many as they slept.
After "The Misery of 1953," the worst flood in modern Dutch history, the country embarked on a major overhaul of its defense systems. Under the Delta Project, huge dikes were built and a complex system of floodgates created to keep the sea at bay.
"We are really safe," Jan Kroos, head of the Netherlands' Storm Surge Warning Service, told Reuters, adding that people from his office would travel to New Orleans within a month to share their experiences with U.S. officials.
However, Hurricane Katrina has prompted the Dutch government to review its emergency plans in case of floods, and some experts say the country remains vulnerable.
"The Netherlands is not yet Delta safe. Fifteen percent of our primary dike and dune system still does not meet the Delta (project) requirements and for 35 percent we are not so sure," Marcel Stive, a coastal water expert, told Dutch television.
For tiny Netherlands, the battle to keep out the sea is a matter of survival. More than half its landmass lies below sea level and the Netherlands -- its name means "Low Lands" -- is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Kroos admitted that his country's famed dikes would not have been able to withstand Katrina, but says such a storm would only hit the temperate Netherlands once in a million years.
"New Orleans lies in a subtropical area and the wind speeds that can happen there are much higher than could happen here."
Professor Bart Schultz, a Dutch expert on water management, also pointed out that New Orleans' defenses were much weaker.
"The safety level of the dikes in New Orleans is much lower, substantially lower than the safety level in our dikes," he said, estimating the risk of failure of New Orleans' dikes at 1 percent per year.
While the Dutch use multiple dikes, New Orleans had just one line of defense on each side of the city. Schultz also argued that prevention was better than a cure.
"If you see now what the United States government allocates for disaster relief, that is at least 10 times the money (that would have been) needed to take the measures before," he said.
The Netherlands' Delta Project started in 1958 and created a defensive flood barrier capable of withstanding the kind of storm that only happens once in 10,000 years, experts say.
They raised the dikes, which now loom as much as 40 feet above the churning sea, and created a system of floodgates that close when the weather turns violent.
Stive says that 50 years on, these measures may no longer be good enough.
"We're 50 years further on, our economic growth has been double what was expected, so 50 years on you can say first we should meet the Delta norms and then ask whether our insurance premiums -- our dikes -- are high enough."
RAIN AND RIVERS
In recent years, heavy rains and swollen rivers rather than surging seas have posed the biggest threat to the Netherlands, famed for its water-pumping windmills.
In 1995, melt water from the mountainous heartland of Europe and extremely heavy rainfall combined to burst the banks of the Rhine and Maas rivers leading to the evacuation of more than 200,000 people in the Netherlands.
The Dutch government drafted a Delta project that would involve giving major rivers greater freedom to spill out across some parts of their traditional floodplains while the height of the dikes controlling them would be increased elsewhere.
The battle to keep the Netherlands dry is unlikely to get any easier. United Nations reports say rising temperatures could trigger more storms and floods and melt icecaps, raising sea levels by up to 3 feet by the end of the 21st century.
"We have calculated the change in temperatures caused by climate change and have provided for a 50-centimeter increase in sea level," said Kroos.
The daily reality of battling the sea may have made the Dutch world leaders at flood prevention but some disaster experts say it may also have blinded them to other dangers.
A heat wave in 2003 killed as many as 1,500 people but unlike in France, where the government has since spent hundreds of millions of euros updating its health system to prevent a repeat of the 15,000 deaths it suffered, the Dutch authorities have only put some tips on the Internet.
"The sense of urgency is not felt in the Netherlands," said Madeleen Helmer, head of the Red Cross/Red Crescent center on climate change and disaster preparedness.