- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

AMSTERDAM - On Sept. 11, a Russian Antonov transport aircraft landed at Pointe a la Hache near New Orleans after an 11-hour flight from the Netherlands Royal Air Force base at Eindhoven.

It carried a heavy truck, trailers, 1,000-gallon water containers, five water pumps, vacuum machines and almost 700 feet of 20-inch-diameter hoses.

Loading the plane began the evening before. “We made it in time for the cargo plane to leave on schedule. The pressure for doing the job right was very high,” said Dutch air force spokeswoman Patricia van Schoonhoven.

After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, U.S. authorities and the Army Corps of Engineers accepted a Dutch offer of knowledge, expertise and aid to combat the water damage and flooding. A team of five specialists from the Dutch Rijkswaterstaat (RWS) accompanied the cargo to help with instructions and equipment repair.

“We will also be able to help reduce damage and in repairing embankments and dams,” said Bert Keijts, director general of the RWS. “We have a special operations team — specialists in waterworks, dikes and embankments — able to act within days, if not hours, at home and overseas upon demand.”

Knowledge transfer

He said a cooperation agreement was reached last year with the Army Corps of Engineers. A second team was to be dispatched by early this month. They will brainstorm several water-emergency issues and the main question: What can we learn from each other, and how are we going to apply it?

Transferring knowledge is one of the most important goals of the upcoming meeting.

The RWS has four central mandates from the Dutch government: to protect the Netherlands against flooding; to provide adequate clean water for all its 16.5 million residents; to construct and manage all roads and waterways, including canals, in the country; and guarantee a safe flow of water.

“They are looking for the safest, most ecologically friendly ways as well as optimal use of existing infrastructure in a sustainable way,” said Stephan Gruijters of the Netherlands Institute for the Application of Science. The institute is a world-renowned civil engineering organization overseeing the quality of life in the Netherlands and has vast experience in water engineering.

Emphasis on innovation

The institute, with more than 5,000 employees, also is active in defense, safety, industrial expertise and technology, water works, soil and sub-soil information, and communication technologies.

“We have the task to innovate in all these areas for the survival of our country and our planet,” Mr. Gruijters told The Washington Times. “We try to and succeed in applying our scientific knowledge to the daily life of our citizens. We have become a reliable source of knowledge for many countries, social institutions and companies worldwide, closing the gap between water hazards and living well and in peace. Developing and innovating the quality of life is what we do worldwide.”

Living below sea level

“The airport,” he said, “like much of the western part of this country and all of Amsterdam, is up to 20 feet below sea level — a striking similarity with the lowlands of Louisiana.”

Mr. Gruijters said much of the arable land in the Netherlands was won from the sea. The country has a centuries-long tradition of struggle with the sea.

In 1953, a devastating storm struck the country, taking 2,500 lives in the southern province of Zeeland. After that, the Dutch vowed never to let it happen again.

“We built new embankments with calculated risks,” he said. “We know, for instance, that the higher parts of the country are less vulnerable than the lower parts. The same is true in New Orleans. We do not fight the water anymore. It is not our enemy, and we cohabit with it. Instead, we control the rage of the winter storms.”

Disaster mirrors simulation

In cooperation with many other European nations, this proud and small country has signed several agreements for projects to tame the Rhine river in Germany and the Meuse river that Netherlands shares with France and Belgium to prevent their overflowing again and causing havoc, as they have done three times in the past decade.

Earlier this year, Maarten Van der Vlist traveled along several densely populated river deltas worldwide to determine whether the Netherlands could learn more about controlling water flows.

One of the places he visited was New Orleans, where the Army Corps of Engineers had shown a simulation of a hurricane punishing the city. “I was dumbfounded,” said Mr. Van der Vlist, a senior Dutch government adviser, “to have witnessed a Category 5 hurricane wiping out the city before it happened in reality. When I saw [the devastation caused by Katrina] on television, that reality copied the prediction.”

Balance risk, prevention

New Orleans and the Netherlands share several similarities, Mr. Van der Vlist and Mr. Gruijters said. Like the Mississippi River and Dutch embankments, New Orleans is below sea level, as is half of the Netherlands, and the soil is being washed away as the sea level rises.

Mr. Gruijters, however, pointed to one big difference: “The almost complete lack of prevention. In New Orleans, they were satisfied with precautions against a Category 3 hurricane, which strikes the city about once every 30 years. They take more risks and stress evacuation. What we are trying to say is get a calculated balance between evacuation and risks. We have paid an extremely high toll and have learned our lessons. The Americans could benefit from the price we had already paid.”

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