With a Little Help From Their Dutch Friends, Could New York Become New Amsterdam?

“In recent days, the Netherlands’ peerless expertise and centuries of experience in battling water have been widely hailed in the United States as offering lessons" for New York and for other cities alike, writes Andrew Higgins.

November 20, 2012, 11:00 AM PST

By Erica Gutiérrez

So, what is it that makes the Dutch way of preventing floods so compelling as a model? The operative word here is preventive, but it is also based on years of experience.

"[A]n elaborate and highly effective Dutch defensive system... includes flood-control techniques first developed in the Middle Ages and futuristic steel structures that, operated by computers, move to block storm surges when water levels rise too high," describes Higgins. Dutch expertise is based on a history of dealing with mighty storms and devastation, as well as consequent policy decisions and capital investment aimed at preventing this in the future. With that said, the Dutch government has spent billions in large construction projects such as the Delta Works, including steep annual maintenance costs for these systems.

Challenges the U.S. would face in implementing flood prevention strategies would include changing its approach to disaster mitigation from a focus on management to one centered on avoidance. "The U.S. is excellent at disaster management," but "working to avoid disaster is completely different from working after a disaster," says Wim Kuijken, the Dutch government's senior official for overall water control policy. Furthermore, the U.S. would need to leverage funding for comparable megaprojects, and finding ways to tailor flood prevention strategies to the local geography and situation.

For New York, this might not necessarily translate into building huge barriers the Dutch way, but finding more appropriate and less expensive solutions like building flood-proof entrances for subway stations and parking structures, warns Bas Jonkman, professor of hydraulic engineering at Delft University of Technology. In fact, in recent years, Dutch prevention measures have also shifted towards prioritizing "enlarg[ing] defenses in a natural way," says Kuijken, including dumping "706 million cubic feet of sand off the coast north of Rotterdam to promote the formation of protective sandbars."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 in The New York Times

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