[Paleopsych] WSJ: Katrina, Juliana and Wilhelmina

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Sun Sep 18 01:25:00 UTC 2005

And here's some historical background.

Katrina, Juliana and Wilhelmina

    Katrina, Juliana and Wilhelmina
    Lessons from the Dutch deluge of 1953.
    Sunday, September 11, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

    Many Dutchmen, shocked by the devastation caused in the U.S. by
    Hurricane Katrina, were reminded of what happened to our own country
    more than 50 years ago. On Feb. 1, 1953, the southwestern part of the
    Netherlands was struck by a flood of biblical proportions. The Dutch
    levee system collapsed in 500 places. There was nowhere to hide. More
    than 1,800 people drowned, together with tens of thousands of cattle
    and other animals. Some 4,000 houses were destroyed, and 40,000 were
    severely damaged. About 100,000 people had to evacuate, out of a
    population of around 12 million.

    The Dutch had suffered catastrophic floods before, but the deluge of
    1953 was a different kind. Just consider that twice as many people
    were killed in the flood as during the infamous German bombing of
    Rotterdam in 1940. The nation was stunned. Older Dutchmen from the
    southwestern islands still get tears in their eyes when they talk
    about how they lost loved ones during what is simply called "the

    The Dutch reaction was: Never again. The government decided to give
    the southwestern and most vulnerable part of the country the best
    possible protection. Eleven massive dams, sea walls and sluices were
    created in waters that sometimes look more like a sea than a river.
    The hydraulic wall built in the vast Oosterschelde, for instance, is
    5.6 miles long and rests on 65 concrete pillars about 43 yards tall.
    Its sluice-gate doors are usually open to protect the special habitat
    (partly seawater, partly freshwater) behind it, and are only closed
    when floods are imminent.

    Another wall, the Maeslantbarrier that completed the protection
    system, consists of two hollow doors--as long as the Eiffel Tower in
    Paris is tall, and four times as heavy--which are lying in docks on
    the banks of the Nieuwe Waterweg. In the event of extreme bad weather
    the docks are filled with water, and the gates float and are turned
    into the Nieuwe Waterweg where they seal off the river. In that way
    this barrier protects the city of Rotterdam and its surroundings,
    where about the same number of people live as did in greater New

    This complex system of dams and barriers--called the Delta plan--is a
    technological achievement comparable maybe in its complexity and
    ambition to the American Apollo project that put a man on the moon.
    After all, the Delta plan was designed to protect the Netherlands from
    flood conditions that happen only once every 10,000 years! New
    Orleans, on the other hand, was protected only against hurricanes that
    occur every 50 years. The total cost of the Delta plan, which began in
    1953 and was only completed a couple of years ago, amounted to $5

    There are other interesting similarities as well as striking
    differences between the Netherlands in 1953 and New Orleans in 2005.
    First, the geography. The Netherlands is an estuary. It was shaped by
    the sedimentation of three huge rivers--the Rhine, the Meuse and the
    Scheldt. Like New Orleans, two-thirds of the Netherlands is below sea
    level. The meteorological conditions were also similar, that is to say
    unique--a combination of spring tides, gale-force winds and deep
    depressions. At high tide, the sea level at Hoek van Holland usually
    is 31 inches above average; on the night of the disaster it was 150
    inches above average. The storm also lasted unusually long: 33 hours
    without letup.

    As in the American Gulf states, the Dutch levee system had been
    neglected. It was not long after World War II; the Netherlands had
    just lost its colony, Indonesia; and the Cold War diverted money and
    attention. Yet the disaster was not unexpected. Experts had calculated
    that the sea could rise up to 13 feet, and six months before the
    storm, the well-respected Dutch engineer Johan van Veen warned that a
    terrible tragedy could happen. A major difference between 1953 and
    2005, however, was the level of awareness. Even outside the U.S.,
    people had information that Hurricane Katrina was headed for New
    Orleans. Most Dutch, rather poor in 1953, only had radio in those
    days. Telephones were rare, TV sets a curiosity.

    Two Dutch researchers, Uri Rosenthal and Geesje Saeijs, concluded in a
    2003 study that the failure of the alarm system was the biggest fault
    of 1953. The Dutch meteorological service actually predicted the
    storm. There was a warning system, but only three of the more than
    1,000 Dutch water boards, which for centuries used to take care of the
    dikes, had a subscription to it.

    The Netherlands was still rather religious in those days, and not much
    public activity was permitted on the seventh day of Creation. So the
    radio simply stopped broadcasting at midnight on Saturday, just before
    the storm gained strength. The population and local authorities were,
    therefore, utterly unprepared for what hit them on Sunday morning.

    Repopulating in some areas took up to two years. Several months after
    the flood, people still had to identify recently found corpses. The
    small holes in the dikes were fixed within weeks, but the big ones
    were still open half-a-year later and required special efforts. One
    hole near Rotterdam was closed by parking a ship in it, and several
    holes were repaired with the help of enormous Phoenix caissons,
    originally designed for the invasion of Normandy in 1944 and
    transported from Britain.

    Quite remarkable was the absence of naming and shaming. Nowadays, the
    Dutch Parliament routinely holds inquiries, but after the flood of
    1953 all political parties (except for the Communists) stressed that
    it was not useful to look for "scapegoats," as one leading politician
    of those days called it. The disaster was, according to one member of
    the Dutch government, an "act of God."

    It took 30 to 40 years before researchers concluded that the big flood
    was also partly man-made. Dikes had been neglected, flood gates that
    should have been closed remained open, civil servants who were warned
    by the meteorological service slept through the storm--there was a
    general lack of both local and national leadership.

    A notable exception was the royal family. Within one day of the
    disaster, Queen Juliana and her mother, Queen Mother Wilhelmina,
    visited drowned areas, wading through the water with rubber boots.
    Many who had lost everything recounted in newspaper stories how
    important these symbolic gestures were. Even the left-wing newspaper
    Het Vrije Volk wrote: "The queen is everywhere these days. . . . Just
    by being there she gives hope."

    Mr. Rozendaal is the science writer for Elsevier, a Dutch weekly

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