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October 30, 2013

What the lowlands can teach the U.S. about warding off high water

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The European nation of the Netherlands, meaning “the lowlands”, is a country built on a swampy delta. Much of the country lies below sea level.

For centuries, the Dutch have fought a war with the rising waters around them, and built the world’s most comprehensive water management system. Now, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and its major destruction, Dutch engineers are urging American cities like New York to incorporate Dutch lessons for keeping water out.

In addition to a reinforced system of dams and dikes, locks and levees, the Netherlands has what it hopes is the ultimate weapons in water defense: enormous storm surge barriers across the mouths of rivers and estuaries. Protecting Rotterdam Harbor are two giant gates, together bigger than the Empire State Building, designed to swing shut if the North Sea threatens.

And bigger still, 50 miles southwest of Rotterdam, a five-and-a-half-mile-long storm surge barrier with 62 doors ready to close with the push of a button.

“We designed on a chance of flooding of once in 4,000 years,” said Jos Geluk, an engineer for the Dutch Delta program, which manages the water.

Compared to the Netherlands, major American cities like New York have virtually no protection from storms.

“As a Dutchman, you are quite surprised to see a large city like New York, so many people exposed, and no levees, no protection at all, was astonishing to me,” said Jeroen Aerrts of VU University Amsterdam.

However, because of all the different waterways into New York, the entire region would need to build an elaborate ring of strategically located barriers to fend off flooding from rising seas and worsening storms. Engineers estimate the project would cost tens of billions of dollars and could damage the surrounding environment.


Warm up questions
  1. What do you know about the Superstorm Sandy disaster last year? Who and where did it affect people the most?
  2. What methods of protection can cities that lie close to an ocean use against flooding?
  3. Where is the Netherlands? What large body of water are they adjacent to?
Discussion questions
  1. If you were living in lower Manhattan or New Jersey would you want your state to invest in some kind of protection against flooding? Why or why not? What if it meant your taxes would have to be raised? Would you still want it? Why or why not would it be worth it?
  2. Do you think that the Dutch system to prevent flooding is a good one or is it overkill? Would you support a similar system for the United States? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think that storm like Sandy will become more common as global warming increases or do you think that it was just a rare disaster? How does that influence your decision for making preparations now?
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