Sunday, August 27, 2006

Politics aside, what about the levees?

With the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of the U.S. Gulf Coast just days away, Ernesto has the potential of being the first hurricane of 2006 to make landfall in that region. Questions are again being raised about whether anything can be done to lessen the severity of the human and economic toll inflicted by the flood waters and storm surges that storms approaching Katrina's strength or greater produce.

Specifically, the big question that must be looming in the mind of virtually every below-sea-level-resident of New Orleans has to be: Will the rebuilt levee system hold if Ernesto or another hurricane strikes?

Col. Lewis Setliff, of the Army Corps of Engineers interviewed in Spike Lee's gut-wrenching four-hour documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" that premiered on HBO last week would only say that the levees are stronger than before. When asked the same question Robert Bea, Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Engineering at the University of Berkeley, California responded that the levees are "not safe." He added that what happened in New Orleans is "the most tragic failure of the civil engineering system in the history of the United States".

Is there better ways of controlling floods and storm surges than what the Corps has constructed along the U.S. Gulf Coast?

The answer is yes. Within weeks after Katrina, the New York Times printed a story by William J. Broad on Europe's successful efforts in designing modern, dependable flood control technologies.

'"On a cold winter night in 1953, the Netherlands suffered a terrifying blow as old dikes and seawalls gave way during a violent storm.

Flooding killed nearly 2,000 people and forced the evacuation of 70,000 others. Icy waters turned villages and farm districts into lakes dotted with dead cows.

Ultimately, the waters destroyed more than 4,000 buildings.

Afterward, the Dutch - realizing that the disaster could have been much worse, since half the country, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam, lies below sea level - vowed never again.

After all, as Tjalle de Haan, a Dutch public works official, put it in an interview last week, "Here, if something goes wrong, 10 million people can be threatened."

So at a cost of some $8 billion over a quarter century, the nation erected a futuristic system of coastal defenses that is admired around the world today as one of the best barriers against the sea's fury - one that could withstand the kind of storm that happens only once in 10,000 years.

The Dutch case is one of many in which low-lying cities and countries with long histories of flooding have turned science, technology and raw determination into ways of forestalling disaster."

Click here to read the entire New York Times article. (GW)


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