Friday, September 01, 2006

The Netherlands is expert at keeping itself dry. So why aren't U.S. bureaucrats seeking more of its help rebuilding the levees?

It's Cheaper to Go Dutch
The Netherlands is expert at keeping itself dry. So why aren't U.S. bureaucrats seeking more of its help rebuilding the levees?
By Mark Hosenball

Sept. 4, 2006 issue - The Dutch know a thing or two about staying dry. Most people in the Netherlands live below sea level, and the country's major cities are in continual danger of being washed away. Or they would be, if Dutch engineers weren't so good at designing levees and floodgates to keep storms at bay. The Netherlands hasn't suffered a catastrophic storm-driven flood since the 1950s, when it began building the current system. Over the decades, North Sea storms have battered the country, and the dikes have held. The Dutch are, no argument, the world's experts. Which raises a question as U.S. politicians and bureaucrats dicker over whether and how to fortify New Orleans against future storms: why not hire the Dutch?

They may yet do just that. U.S. engineers are impressed by the Dutch system, but so far, bureaucratic sluggishness has slowed reconstruction. Much of the contentious debate over rebuilding the city has centered on what to do about the lowest-lying areas, including the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward. Early cost estimates made it seem that whole sections of the city would have to be abandoned. But Hans Vrijling, a renowned authority on flood control who designed part of the Dutch system, says it should be possible to protect New Orleans—even low-lying sections—from storm surges more than 10 times Katrina's. The price tag: less than $10 billion.

Instead, Congress has so far allocated $5.7 billion to repair and rebuild the existing levees to pre-Katrina standards. Those levees, if they had worked, were supposed to have protected the city from a 100-year storm. In other words, the walls would guard against a storm surge so severe it is likely to happen only once every century. If that sounds impressive, consider this: critical flood barriers in the Netherlands are designed to withstand a 10,000-year surge. That may seem like overkill. But storm scientists estimate a Katrina-strength hurricane is likely to wallop the Gulf Coast again at least once in the next 70 years.

Congress has given the Army Corps of Engineers $20 million to come up with a comprehensive design to protect the city permanently. American engineers have been in consultation with Dutch designers, and in the meantime the Corps has asked a Dutch firm to design a 100- to 200-year floodgate system for the western end of Lake Borgne. Dan Hitchings, the Army Corps official in charge of Gulf Coast protection, says it may ultimately bring in more Dutch help. But it likely won't know for sure for more than a year. The Corps has until the end of 2007 to complete its study, and it shows no signs of speeding things along. Hitchings says the Corps has to give Congress a range of options and price tags, to "make sure the nation wants to do what the Netherlands did."

Vrijling, for one, can't understand what the Corps is going to study for so long. The technology already exists and has been tested over decades in the Netherlands. He says Dutch and American engineers, working together, would need only "a couple of months" to draw up a detailed plan. "If we had the will and one month's money from Iraq, we could do all the levees and restore the coast," says Ivor Van Heerden, a Louisiana State University hurricane scientist who warned for years about a Katrina-like disaster. "We can save Louisiana. It is very doable."