- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

AMSTERDAM — The disaster came in 1953.

A powerful storm breached sea dikes in the south of the Netherlands, killing more than 1,800 people and cementing a deep resolve among the Dutch that their ancient enemy — water — would never kill again.

So the government launched a massive project to upgrade its ancient system of dikes and dunes. The crown jewel, a chain of 40-foot-tall steel walls suspended by piers in the open sea, was completed in the 1980s and cost the equivalent of $3.1 billion. It is considered among the world’s best defenses against flooding.

Also-vulnerable Venice, Italy, is putting a similar system in place. But the deluge in New Orleans has prompted Europeans to wonder whether their sophisticated protections — or any — will ever be enough.

For the waterlogged Netherlands, whose very name means “the low-lying country,” the worst-case scenario would be far more devastating than Hurricane Katrina, entailing a tidal wave strong enough to penetrate the nation’s coastal barriers.

The chance of such a disaster is seen as remote. But floods have happened many times in Dutch history, and no one doubts one could happen again — under the right conditions.

“Rationally, you know it can happen, but you pray it never does,” said Peter Dolen, the head of the Dutch Interior Ministry’s Risk and Crisis Communication Center. “You can draw up any plan you like from behind your desk, but you know it’s going to be different in reality.”

Nearly half the Netherlands is below sea level, and two-thirds of its 16 million population live in those areas. Even Amsterdam’s famous canals lie more than six feet below the sea. Yet evacuation is a last resort. Written into Dutch law is the requirement that the coastal dikes be able to withstand the fiercest storm imaginable.

“It would come in the winter, at high tide on a new moon,” said Henk van der Brink of the Royal Dutch Weather Institute, whose models are used by the country’s dike engineers. “Two big storms would join together to form a single storm of a much greater magnitude — the ‘perfect storm.’”

A similar confluence last happened on Feb. 1, 1953, with gale-force northwesterly winds, a sudden squall and an unusually high tide. The sea rushed into the Dutch countryside, resulting in the flood known here simply as “the disaster.”

“It was so sudden it caught everyone completely by surprise. There was no time to prepare,” said researcher Toon Franken of the Zeeland Archives in the city of Middelburg, where the disaster hit hardest.

Today, the Netherlands is spending $3.7 billion on new projects, in addition to $620 million spent annually on maintaining the current system.

In Venice, the last big flood was on Nov. 4, 1966, when sea waters rose nearly six feet above normal. About 3,000 people were evacuated.

Aiming for better defenses, Italy launched its $4 billion “Moses” project, named for the biblical figure who parted the Red Sea. It envisions hinged barriers built on the Adriatic seabed that would rise when high tides threaten the city, said Monica Ambrosini at the New Venice Consortium, the agency overseeing the project. Completion is expected by 2010 or 2011.

“We’re not protected from an extraordinary event,” Ms. Ambrosini said. “Let’s hope that it does not arrive before we finish.”

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