News Stories

Dutch Government Flood Control Team Leader Reflects on New Orleans Experience

Published Nov. 5, 2007

   On February 1, 1953, a high-tide storm breached dikes in the Netherlands in more than 450 places. Nearly 1,900 people died, and more than 47,000 homes and other buildings were swept away.  The Dutch government followed up with a $3-billion, 30-year program to strengthen the storm surge protections. The country built an elaborate network of dikes, man-made islands and a mile and a half stretch of 62 gates to control the entry and exit of North Sea waters into the country's low-lying southwestern provinces. 

   Two years after Hurricane Katrina hit the Dutch are continuing to take a second look at their fortifications against the sea.

   Jaap van Wissen is a Dutchman who experienced the flooded city of New Orleans two years ago.  He was the leader of a five-man mobile water pump team sent over by the government of the Netherlands to help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unwater the city and areas south in Plaquemines Parish.  Van Wissen visited the Wilmington District recently after attending a water conference in Las Vegas, and after spending a few days in New Orleans to see how the city is coping. 

   “You see that New Orleans has been cleaned up in many places,” he said.  “And you see in many places workers busy in the houses to better them up.  In some place I have been two years ago the houses have disappeared.  But New Orleans is starting a new life.” 

   The Dutch team and another portable water pump team sent over by the German government to work closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pumped the city dry within two months, a mission expected to take up to six months.

   “Holland was very pleased to give assistance.  My team was self-supplied, self sufficient.  The only things we needed were food, water, shelter and fuel which the Army Corps gave us.  We wanted to help share our lessons from the flood of 1953.”

    During his recent visit to new Orleans van Wissen said scores of Dutchmen have been there studying the after effects of Hurricane Katrina, and are trying to figure out ways to make improvements to their water management system in the Netherlands.  Dutch government officials, he said, feel those defenses might be insufficient. A larger population and climate change have left the country's interior more vulnerable to flooding than ever.

   “We’ve always been involved in the risks of storms and the possibility of rising sea levels.  We want to revise our plans.  What we’ve learned from New Orleans is that evacuation plans are difficult. To get out one million people from the city shortly before the hurricane struck….was very difficult.  In Holland we are now working out evacuation plans for the people who live beneath the sea level which is about 8.2 million people living between Amsterdam and the Hague.  Utrecht and Rotterdam are in the lower parts and they have the possibility to evacuate if there’s a dike breach or flood.”

  Since 1820, one-fifth of the Netherlands has been reclaimed from the sea.  The Dutch look at this modern marvel practically, and never take living below sea level for granted.  

  “You never know if improvements will be a success, but we in Holland have been working with the water in our delta for more than a thousand years.  We have a lot of experience in how to manage water and how to deal with water and how to live with water.  We are well experienced people and we like to give our experience to other countries to learn from it.”