A friend recently sent me a link to a speech given here in New Orleans by the Ambassador of the Netherlands to the United States. Late last year, the Ambassador briefly explained the history of his country's struggle with the sea and the immense engineering task they undertook to win that struggle. There's a lot of good information in there.
But what's not in the speech is the engineering. No innovative design techniques, no revolutionary construction methods, no space-age materials or high-tech systems.
That's because the engineering is not the hard part. The means and methods to design, build, operate and maintain a comprehensive, reliable flood protection system are well-known and established.
What the Dutch did that sets their system apart from what we have in the United States has nothing to do with engineering--it's the political process.
Here are some excerpts from the Ambassador's speech that are instructive:
The 1953 flooding of the Netherlands was, excuse my cynicism, the Perfect Storm. It was a watershed event for my country, perhaps as Katrina will be for the U.S. 'Never again' became our motto. We had a national debate about what we should do, and how to do it. We made a political decision to assign specific water management authorities to specific levels of government. We established administrative processes to monitor the implementation of those authorities. This clear assignment of who does what, when and how is a unique strength of our water policy.
Has anyone in Washington, other than the Louisiana delegation, said, "Never again"?
The end result was ... the most-densely populated and economically-important parts of the country can withstand a storm with a probability of occurrence of 1 in 10,000 years. Other areas are protected at a 1 in 4000 years occurrence or a 1 in 1250 years occurrence. Our lowest level of protection far exceeds Category 5 Hurricane level protection.
For years we've been using 1 in 100 years for design. Even FEMA uses the 100 year flood event to set Base Flood Elevations. Can we take a clue from the Dutch on this one?
To get this protection, we had to shorten our coastline by about 400 miles, or almost 2/3rds. This meant closing off estuaries and changing the water flow in some places. We strengthened our dike engineering standards, and our maintenance routines. We streamlined the authority of our local water boards. In sum, we made physical, technical and administrative changes.
Water is the enemy and must be controlled, but water is also vital for our environment. We must be prepared to make bold changes to achieve a balance of safety for people and all other living things in south Louisiana.
On an annual basis, water protection costs the Dutch Government $500 million per year.
The Netherlands is about 14,400 square miles in size, less than a third the size of Louisiana. For the last few years the entire civil works program of the Corps of Engineers has been funded at about $4.5 billion spread out over 50 states. The Dutch take flood protection seriously; we clearly do not.
Your officials are discussing how to rebuild the Gulf Coast, what level of protection to provide. We have learned that underinvestment in infrastructure may be penny-wise, but also pound foolish. If people or businesses don't feel secure, they won't return. They won't build anew. They won't take entrepreneurial risks. That would be devastating to everyone here tonight and those you represent. It would also prevent the US from maximizing the return on investment already found in this amazing area.
The bottom line: you can't con, bribe, cajole, strong-arm, trick or force people to live and businesses to locate here. Quit fooling around and build significant hurricane protection.
Source: H.E. Boudewijn van Eenennaam, Ambassador of the Netherlands to the United States, Remarks made at the Wyndham New Orleans Hotel, November 27, 2005.