Do Dutch have answers to an 'Ike Dike?'

October 30, 2009 5:51:42 PM PDT
It's been more than a year since Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast and its storm surge severely damaged communities all around Galveston Bay. Now coastal counties are looking for ways to protect the coast from future storm surges. It's part of the road to recovery. We've told you before that the state is looking at a plan to build a wall from High Island to Freeport. It's a proposal from a Texas A&M-Galveston professor that would have a gate at the bay. The project could cost at least $4 billion.

So we went to get answers from people who know about keeping high water out of their cities -- the Netherlands. In Focus reporter Ted Oberg traveled to Holland to show us how the Dutch fight high water.

Not a single hurricane hit the Gulf Coast this year. We got lucky. But they'll be back. And when the next big one comes, there is something the Dutch have that some Texans want here very badly.

Rotterdam is a Dutch city about 50 miles from the North Sea. There are a little more than one million people here. It started as a shipping town long before expanding into Holland's second largest city. It sounds sort of like Houston, except for one pretty important difference.

"You're standing in the heart of Rotterdam. Our feet are four meters below sea level. So the head of that guy, the top of that statue, is at sea level," said Piet Dircke, a professor of water management.

The entire city would be underwater if nature had its way. And it's not just this city.

"About half the country is below sea level so we have no other choice than to defend ourselves against the sea. This is a national effort," he said.

Dircke is also one of the designers of Holland's state of the art system that keeps Dutch feet dry. But Dircke also lives in Rotterdam, so his designs keep his own family safe.

"This is a matter of necessity," said Dircke.

In 1953 the North Sea broke through Dutch levees, flooding the southern portion of the Netherlands. Nearly 2,000 people died, and preventing it from ever happening again is practically a national calling.

"The government promised the people this would never happen again and the people relied on it," Dircke said.

So far it hasn't happened again. There are normal levees and dikes here, simple rock, concrete and soil berms that keep water out. But the Dutch have massive gates too. Some that only open in storms, some that are open all the time and close in storms. They wrap miles and miles of the Dutch coast.

But the jewel of the Dutch system is a massive, billion dollar moving flood gate, 800 feet tall and 1,400 feet wide that seals off Rotterdam's ship channel when storm surge threatens.

"When the water is getting high, it will protect my house and my children," said Rotterdam resident Arnno Akkarnans.

Once that's closed, that's it. So long as it holds, any storm surge stays on that side of the barrier. You can imagine what that does for the anxiety level of the million people who live on this side. To give you an idea, they have that gate and the levees on the coast, but they don't have evacuation plans.

All these people rely on it to work, trusting that a government program really will keep them dry and safe. And they really do trust it. When you are one of millions who live under sea level, trust may be your only choice.

"You can't get flood insurance in Holland. We don't have flood insurance. They even forbid it. You're not allowed to have one," said Dircke.

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