Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way to Hold Back the Sea

Originally posted: November 4, 2005

EDAM, Holland — Here along the cobblestone streets and canals of this 12th-century village, tight against the dike that protects it from the waters of the Zeider-zee, I was thinking about what House Speaker Dennis Hastert said about New Orleans. Hastert said we shouldn’t bother rebuilding that city because it was stupidly located below sea level.

In the old section of Edam, it is impossible to walk 30 yards without crossing a canal. At the edge of town, cattle mosey around farm fields meticulously trenched to manage the water and sheep graze on the inner hillside of the dike. The Netherlands, meaning literally “the lowlands,” have been constructing barriers against the sea and building artificial waterways since the days of the Roman Empire.

I asked a local official to point me to someone who could explain how the Dutch manage flood control here, where nearly all the land is below sea level. Her answer was something like this: “Well, you might ask any schoolchild over the age of 12. We’ve been holding back the North Sea now for about six centuries.”

I wanted to get Hastert on an airplane and bring him here to see how it is done. There are plenty of differences between The Netherlands and the American Gulf Coast, of course. The Dutch don’t have to deal with a hurricane zone, for example, but the storms off the North Sea defeated the inhabitants many times until they mustered the determination to build the dikes, drain the low-lying areas and protect their cities.

The city of Amsterdam was once a waterlogged peat bog. Over the years dikes and dams were built; artificial islands were constructed to build shipyards. Now canals encircle Amsterdam like a belt or a girdle, reaching ever outward, constantly reclaiming lowlands to accommodate one of the world’s most densely populated countries.

In short, the Dutch figured out what they had to do to survive the seas and found the gumption to do it and get it right. In America, we have not done that. Even with warnings of impending disaster, hurricane and flood control have been secondary concerns and may possibly remain so.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the rest of the country learned what most New Orleanians already knew: that the New Orleans levees might protect against a Level 3 hurricane but nothing higher. In a 2002 award-winning series, The Times-Picayune described what would happen in a Level 5: “People will be on their rooftops along with the rats, fire ants, snakes, nutria hurricane katrina.jpgand possibly alligators. Water will be a festering stew of sewage, gasoline, refinery chemicals and debris.”

The faltering response of President Bush and the utter incompetence of FEMA made most people blame the federal government. Only then did it become widely known that plans were in place for an upgrade of the New Orleans levee system, but the administration slashed the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers. To repair the levees holding back Lake Pontchertrain, the Corps requested $27 million. Bush authorized $3.9 million. Work on the project stopped. Estimated damage to New Orleans from Katrina: $200 billion.

But local government was equally at fault in Louisiana. There are more than 500 miles of deficient levees along the Mississippi, but local political

cronyism turned the 12 separate Louisiana levee boards into opportunities for profiteering. In Holland, the Water Boards that regulate the dikes take that job seriously.

And what about Congress? Why don’t the representatives from the endangered states band together to demand the best protection possible from the federal government? The hurricane belt of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts includes: Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Imagine the congressional clout in those delegations.

Imagine if Gov. Jeb Bush, whose Florida voters saved his brother’s presidency twice, advised his brother: “George, if you really care about your legacy, fix this. Make America as safe from hurricanes as it can possibly be. Rebuild New Orleans and bring some Dutchmen over to show how it’s done. And if it’s worth doing, it’s worth paying for. Do what Daddy and Reagan both had to do. Raise the necessary taxes. Americans are ready to pay for this.”

In my dreams.

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