Below Sea Level? No Problem
A 19th-century American children's author, of all people, is responsible for that famed myth about the Netherlands-that a little boy once saved the city of Haarlem by plugging a tiny hole in a dike with his chubby little finger. In reality, the Netherlands' archipelago of flood barriers is hardly so fragile. The country, about the size of Maryland, is protected by more than 10,000 miles of dikes, dams, dunes, sluices, and floodgates capable of snapping shut and holding back the sea. "They're the true innovators in how we understand and manage water," says retired Brig. Gen. Gerry Galloway, formerly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Studies show without its sophisticated flood control system, an estimated 65 percent of the country would be submerged. In the old days, people built their homes on artificial mounds, or terpen, to wait out high tide; windmills were developed later to pump water off low-lying land. In 1953, a major flood obliterated postwar complacency about protection: The icy deluge killed more than 1,800 people and 200,000 pigs, horses, and cows, while also damaging 47,000 buildings. The Dutch quickly kicked off an almost 50-year effort to buttress flood guards that cost $14.7 billion.
Steel doors. The massive project, called Delta Works, sculpted the landscape to close off all the country's major sea inlets-save three crucial for commerce-to limit exposure to the storms in the North Sea that had caused most floods. The waterways leading to the port of Rotterdam and the mouth of the Oosterscheldt River were equipped with massive steel doors-the largest weighing about four times as much as the Eiffel Tower-that shut during emergencies to provide refuge from storm surges. The result: Urbanized areas are now protected against the 10,000-year flood, an event with a 1 in 10,000 chance of occurring each year. That's 50 times as strong as what New Orleans had when Hurricane Katrina hit.
Most experts say the Netherlands' model of flood protection as a national imperative is almost impossible to achieve in the United States, a larger, more geographically diverse country that doesn't set national standards for levee quality. But "they've shown us what's possible," says New Orleans author and flood expert John Barry, "and that we're not all crazy for living below sea level in the Bayou." Engineers in the Big Easy, who consult extensively with the Netherlands, are planning to submit a plan to Congress in December for protecting their city from a Category 5 hurricane. "But we'll be just one project on a long list of budget priorities, and there's no funding guarantees," says Al Naomi, a senior project manager for the corps in New Orleans.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.