When Hurricane Florence made landfall and stalled over the Carolinas in September 2018, the storm dropped an incredible eight trillion gallons of rain on North Carolina alone. The deluge produced catastrophic flash flooding and river flooding leaving many homes, roads, and farmlands under water for weeks. Preliminary analysis suggests that property losses could cost up to $20 billion.
But as the focus shifts from recovery to rebuild, many are questioning the wasteful approach that characterizes how we respond to natural disasters such as Florence and Harvey. It’s an approach that favors putting things back the way they were. While FEMA and flood insurance policies help people rebuild, it’s usually the same structure in the same place.
A Different Approach
Across the pond in the land of dikes and windmills, the approach is quite different. Fed by rivers from Germany and France and under constant threat of storm surge from the
North Sea, the Netherlands is a vulnerable land of water that lies mostly below sea level. For the Dutch flooding is a way of life, yet the country’s proactive approach to flood control and controlled flooding means that the country will likely never experience the damages that the U.S. does from weather events.
Dams and dikes are only part of the solution for the Netherlands and the Dutch have learned that alone they won’t protect the country from flooding. That wake-up call came in 1953 when a storm surge swallowed the entire southwestern part of the country killing almost 2,000 people. In response, man-made dunes were built to protect vulnerable coastal towns from the North Sea. A far cry from the soft dunes that characterize the United States’ barrier islands, these dunes blend form and function. The dune defenses were designed to incorporate both a dike and an underground parking garage to reinforce and raise the height of the dunes 25 feet
above sea level, thus protecting the village of Katwijk aan Zee behind it.
Making Room for the River
In another part of the Netherlands, flood management takes another form with residents re-locating to make way for flood plains. “The Dutch call it ‘room for the river’”, said Henk Ovink, a Netherlands native appointed the world’s only water ambassador by the Dutch government. Ovink advises the U.N, and many countries and cities on flood prevention, including the city of Houston after Hurricane Harvey and Hoboken, N.J., after Superstorm Sandy.
Other measures taken by the Dutch government, who budgets almost a billion dollars a year on flood management, include building massive storm surge barriers along vulnerable river towns such as Rotterdam where two gates guard the port against flooding.
Lessons Learned and Applied Back Home
In an interview with CBS News, Henk Ovink was asked what’s the biggest challenge in the United States when it comes to flood management?
“You’re solution oriented. You have a collective. When things happen, you come together. You wanna build back and repair and be ready when disastrous things happen. But there’s not so much a belief that you can actually prevent a disaster from happening…$150 billion were lost in New Orleans. I don’t think I need to say more. How many people were killed? Sandy, another storm, $70 billion. We don’t have those damages.”
With millions of dollars being poured into U.S.-based hurricane relief and rebuild efforts, Ovink stresses the need to rebuild differently and rebuild for the future. He’s even persuaded Uncle Sam to pay for such efforts.
After Sandy flooded the entire city of Hoboken in up to ten feet of water, the city’s mayor, Dawn Zimmer, wouldn’t accept a simple rebuild mentality. She wanted to rebuild smarter. At the time, money became available from an unusual angle, a multi-stage planning and design competition funded by the Obama administration and spearheaded by Henk Ovink and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The Rebuild by Design competition called on interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, designers, and architects to come up with ideas to improve physical, ecological, economic, and social resilience in regions affected by Superstorm Sandy. As part of the initiative, a Dutch design team proposed the development of a coastal defense to address flooding in Hoboken from major storms surges, high tides, and heavy rainfall events. The proposed project was one of the competition’s six winning concepts and was awarded $230 million by HUD.
No ordinary defense, the design incorporates a combination of hard infrastructure (bulkheads, floodwalls, etc.) and soft landscaping (levees, parks, a boathouse with benches, and outdoor seating). Building will start next year.
“And I’m very confident that when that next storm hits, because it’s going to hit – it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when – and we will be prepared, and we will be a model to show that this approach can work,” said Zimmer.
The barrier is just one of four components designed to resist, delay, store, and discharge stormwater in the city.