[Paleopsych] NYT: High-Tech Flood Control, With Nature's Help

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sun Sep 18 01:24:04 UTC 2005

High-Tech Flood Control, With Nature's Help
New York Times, 5.9.6


   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 

    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.

    London has built floodgates on the Thames River. Venice is doing the same 
on the Adriatic.

    Japan is erecting superlevees. Even Bangladesh has built concrete shelters 
on stilts as emergency havens for flood victims.

    Experts in the United States say the foreign projects are worth studying 
for inspiration about how to rebuild New Orleans once the deadly waters of 
Hurricane Katrina recede into history.

    ''They have something to teach us,'' said George Z. Voyiadjis, head of 
civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University. ''We should 
capitalize on them for building the future here.''

    Innovations are happening in the United States as well. California is 
experimenting with ''smart'' levees wired with nervous systems of electronic 
sensors that sound alarms if a weakening levee threatens to open a breach, 
giving crews time to make emergency repairs.

    ''It's catching on,'' said William F. Kane, president of Kane GeoTech Inc., 
a company in Stockton, Calif., that wires levees and other large structures 
with failure sensors. ''There's a lot of potential for this kind of thing.''

    While scientists hail the power of technology to thwart destructive forces, 
they note that flood control is a job for nature at least as much as for 
engineers. Long before anyone built levees and floodgates, barrier islands were 
serving to block dangerous storm surges. Of course, those islands often fall 
victim to coastal development.

    ''You'll never be able to control nature,'' said Rafael L. Bras, an 
environmental engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who 
consults on the Venetian project. ''The best way is to understand how nature 
works and make it work in our favor.''

    In humanity's long struggle against the sea, the Dutch experience in 1953 
was a grim milestone. The North Sea flood produced the kind of havoc that 
became all too familiar on the Gulf Coast last week. When a crippled dike 
threatened to give way and let floodwaters spill into Rotterdam, a boat captain 
-- like the brave little Dutch boy with the quick finger -- steered his vessel 
into the breach, sinking his ship and saving the city.

    ''We were all called upon to collect clothes and food for the disaster 
victims,'' recalled Jelle de Boer, a Dutch high school student at the time who 
is now an emeritus professor of geology at Wesleyan University. ''Cows were 
swimming around. They'd stand when they could, shivering and dying. It was a 
terrible mess.''

    The reaction was intense and manifold. Linking offshore islands with dams, 
seawalls and other structures, the Dutch erected a kind of forward defensive 
shield, drastically reducing the amount of vulnerable coastline. Mr. de Haan, 
director of the water branch of the Road and Hydraulic Engineering Institute of 
the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, said the 
project had the effect of shortening the coast by more than 400 miles.

    For New Orleans, experts say, a similar forward defense would seal off Lake 
Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico. That step would eliminate a major 
conduit by which hurricanes drive storm surges to the city's edge -- or, as in 
the case of Katrina, through the barriers.

    The Dutch also increased the height of their dikes, which now loom as much 
as 40 feet above the churning sea. (In New Orleans, the tallest flood walls are 
about half that size.) The government also erected vast complexes of floodgates 
that close when the weather turns violent but remain open at other times, so 
saltwater can flow into estuaries, preserving their ecosystems and the 
livelihoods that depend on them.

    The Netherlands maintains large teams of inspectors and maintenance crews 
that safeguard the sprawling complex, which is known as Delta Works. The annual 
maintenance bill is about $500 million. ''It's not cheap,'' Mr. de Haan said. ' 
'But it's not so much in relation to the gross national product. So it's a kind 
of insurance.''

    The 1953 storm also pounded Britain. Along the Thames, flooding killed more 
than 300 people, ruined farmland and frightened Londoners, whose central city 
narrowly escaped disaster.

    The British responded with a plan to better regulate tidal surges sweeping 
up the Thames from the North Sea. Engineers designed an attractive barrier 
meant to minimize interference with the river's natural flow. It went into 
service in 1982 at Woolwich, about 10 miles east of central London.

    Normally, its semicircular gates lie flush to the riverbed in concrete 
supporting sills, creating no obstacle to river traffic. When the need arises, 
the gates pivot up, rising as high as a five-story building to block rising 
waters. The authorities have raised the Thames barrier more than 80 times.

    In Venice, the precipitating event was a 1966 flood that caused wide damage 
and economic loss. The upshot was an ambitious plan known as the Moses Project, 
named after the biblical parting of the Red Sea. Its 78 gargantuan gates would 
rest on the floor of the Adriatic Sea and rise when needed to block dangerous 
tidal surges.

    Long debate over the project's merits repeatedly delayed the start of 
construction until May 2003. Opponents claim that the $4.5 billion effort will 
prove ineffective while threatening to kill the fragile lagoon in which Venice 
sits. In theory, the gates are to be completed by 2010.

    ''People fight doing things like this,'' said Dr. Bras, of M.I.T. ''But 
when disaster strikes you realize how important it is to think ahead.''

    Planners did just that in Bangladesh after a 1991 hurricane created huge 
storm surges that killed more than 130,000 people. World charities helped build 
hundreds of concrete shelters on stilts, which in recent storms have saved 
thousands of lives.

    In Japan, a continuous battle against flooding in dense urban areas has 
produced an effort to develop superlevees. Unlike the customary mounds of 
earth, sand and rock that hold back threatening waters, they are broad expanses 
of raised land meant to resist breaks and withstand overflows.

    The approach being tried in California relies on a technology known as 
time-domain reflectometry. It works on the same principle as radar: a pulse of 
energy fired down a coaxial cable bounces back when it reaches the end or a 
distortion, like a bend or crimp.

    Careful measurement of the echoes traveling back along the cable can 
disclose serious distortions and danger. Dr. Kane, of Kane GeoTech, has 
installed such a system in the Sacramento River delta, along a levee that is 
threatening to fail.

    Could such a system have saved New Orleans? ''It would have given them more 
information,'' said Charles H. Dowding, a top expert on the technology at 
Northwestern University. ''The failure of a levee would have been detected.'' 
But experts say it is still unclear whether such a warning would have been 
enough to prevent the catastrophic breaches.

    Dr. Bras says sensor technologies for detecting levee failure hold much 
promise. But he adds that less glamorous approaches, like regular maintenance, 
may be even more valuable, since prevention is always the best cure.

    ''We have to learn that things have to be reviewed, revised, maintained and 
repaired as needed,'' he said. ''To see a city like New Orleans suffer such 
devastation -- some of that was preventable.''

    He added that no matter how ambitious the coastal engineering, no matter 
how innovative and well maintained, the systems of levees, seawalls and 
floodgates were likely to suffer sporadic failures.

    ''Nature will throw big things at us once in a while,'' he said. ''There's 
always the possibility that nature will trump us.''

More information about the paleopsych mailing list