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Last Updated: Friday, 13 January 2006, 11:43 GMT
Louisiana studies Dutch dams
By Perro de Jong
Radio Netherlands, Hilversum

Dutch Crown Prince Willem Alexander (left), US Sen David Vitter (centre) and US Sen Mary Landrieu (right) at Maeslant Barrier gates near Hoek van Holland
Louisiana officials believe lessons can be learnt from the Dutch
Historical roles were reversed when top officials from hurricane-stricken Louisiana visited Zeeland province in the Netherlands this week.

The delegation was led by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and included senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter.

In 1953, Zeeland was devastated by a flood disaster even worse than the one in New Orleans.

Two thousand people were killed, and the system of dykes protecting the islands and peninsulas in Zeeland's river delta collapsed in nearly 500 places.

After the disaster, Dutch delegates visited Louisiana to marvel at the state-of-the-art levees placed along the Mississippi River in the 1920s and '30s.

Realising that tragedy could perhaps have been prevented, the delegates returned home vowing they would never again be taken by surprise.

Zeeland's pioneering Delta Project was a direct result of these considerations.

While the likelihood of a Katrina-like disaster in New Orleans had been estimated at once every 200 or 300 years, the Delta Project was designed to push the envelope and withstand flood conditions occurring once every 10,000 years.

Dutch expertise

It is because of thinking like this that "worldwide, the greatest expertise in flood control lies in the Netherlands," according to a leading US science writer, Mark Fischetti.

The Netherlands' most vulnerable areas

Mr Fischetti told Radio Netherlands the US had until now failed to make use of that expertise, despite the earlier history of exchanging know-how.

"Since the Dutch system has been built," he said, "the [US] Army Corps, as far as I understand from my own reporting, has not really sought any advice from the Dutch."

"Actually I was told in 2001 by some engineers at the corps that they hadn't really sought to see what was going on in Holland in any sort of detail, and they didn't seem that interested in doing so either."

His accusation adds to criticism that the US delegation's visit was "too little, too late" and was intended mostly as a face-saving exercise.

However, the delegation's host, Dutch Crown Prince Willem Alexander, was adamant that the US faces a similar challenge to the Netherlands in 1953: "how to protect your country in the long term," a question to which he said the Netherlands could even now provide "a possible answer".

Massive barriers

What exactly such an answer might involve became clear during the high point of the delegation's visit: an excursion to the actual storm-surge barriers.

Flooded street in New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina breached New Orleans' famous levees
The Oosterscheldebarrier is the biggest and was the most difficult to build: a 9km (5.6-mile) hydraulic wall with sluice-gate doors that are normally left open to protect the area's delicate tidal habitat.

Another wall, the Maeslantbarrier, protects Rotterdam, the Netherlands' second city with a population roughly the same size as that of New Orleans. Consisting of two hollow doors the size of the Eiffel Tower, the Maeslantbarrier was the Delta Project's final instalment.

When it was completed in 1997, the total cost of the project amounted to more than $5bn.

How serious the US is about learning from the Dutch example will therefore depend largely on two things: whether it has the staying power required for such a project, and whether it is willing to pick up the astronomical price tag.

Tax revenues

In the Netherlands, funding for the Delta Project came mostly from taxes, under a series of centuries-old rulings that had made dyke maintenance a "common cause" for the whole community and not just those in flood-risk areas.

The United States does not have such a history. However, Senator Marie Landrieu told Radio Netherlands that she and her fellow delegates believed it should make no difference.

"We pay a lot of taxes in America now, it's just a matter of how we spend those tax dollars," she said.

"I think that we should redirect some of our tax dollars that we're already paying to coastal protection and restoration. So we're not talking about raising taxes, we're talking about allocation of taxes that are already paid to do this work."

Meanwhile, a timely warning against too much Dutch self-confidence came from leading flood expert Eelco Dykstra, who teaches at George Washington University.

In his new book called Katrina In Europe, Professor Dykstra describes what happens when the fictional "Hurricane Celine" makes landfall in the Netherlands. Failing communications and a lack of backup from other countries lead to chaos and destruction on an even larger scale than in New Orleans.

The lesson: state-of-the-art flood defences are one thing, but never say a disaster could not happen here.

1 Top beam, under which water flows when gates are open
2 Steel gate is lowered when sea level reaches "danger" height
3 Sill beam at foot of giant piers is embedded in sill
4 Sill comprises 5m tonnes of 10,000kg stone blocks, for stability
5 Voids in pier bases filled with sand after positioning
6 Synthetic "mattress" filled with sand and gravel laid on top of compacted sand to strengthen sea bed

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