January 12, 2006

US officials learn from Dutch flood expertise

By Reed Stevenson

DELFT, Netherlands (Reuters) - Officials from Louisiana,
visiting the Netherlands in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and
Rita, hailed Dutch know-how on Thursday and said they still had
much to learn to prevent future flood disasters.

"We feel we've benefited from centuries of expertise," said
Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat who, with a group of engineers,
academics and businessmen from the U.S. state, toured Dutch
flood control and water management systems this week.

"Clearly, we have a lot of work ahead," she added.

The U.S. government has committed about $3.1 billion to
strengthen the New Orleans levees but views still vary on how
to rebuild flood protection systems, strengthen against future
storm surges and restore and protect wetlands and coastal

The Dutch stressed -- and their U.S. counterparts agreed --
that short-term measures would not protect low-lying lands from
storms such as the two Category 5 hurricanes that devastated
New Orleans, the Mississippi marshes and Louisiana coast last

"Treat water in a mature way," said Johan van der Burg,
vice president of the Regional Water Authority of Delfland, an
area inhabited by 1.4 million people near the southwest coast.

"When nature is too strong, we prepare," he said.

At least 1,300 people in Louisiana were killed and one
million displaced by Hurricane Katrina, while tens of thousands
of buildings were destroyed.


After suffering a similar calamity in 1953, when a massive
North Sea storm breached the famed Dutch dikes in more than 450
places along the southwest coast, the Dutch spent nearly $15
billion over the next five decades improving flood defenses.

More than 1,800 people were killed in "the Misery of 1953,"
and in a vast engineering operation called the Delta Project,
huge dikes were built and a complex system of flood gates was
designed to keep the sea at bay.

One system alone, the Maeslant storm surge barrier, cost
$700 million to build and was completed only in 1997.

The Louisiana visitors said they were struck by how the
Dutch were constantly aware of the threat to their land and
their lives with the full knowledge that nearly two-thirds of
the country was below sea level.

"I was impressed...the government spends time on constantly
educating the public," Landrieu said.

Landrieu said she was planning another trip in March or
April, and her Republican counterpart, Sen. David Vitter, said
he was planning to introduce a bill that could call for a
nine-member water control committee.

The Dutch reminded their visitors repeatedly that long-term
thinking was crucial to preventing flood disasters, that they
themselves are working on plans to cope with rising sea levels,
sinking land and increased rainfall.

Some new ideas include giving land back to the sea,
creating flood plains and building floating buildings, roads
and farms.

"Our country may seem relatively safe," said Boudewijn van
Eenennaam, Dutch ambassador to the United States, "But the
Dutch can never be safe."