Ira Flatow on Science: Controlling Floods with Levees

Madeleine Brand talks with Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday, about how other nations use levee systems to control flooding.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

The deadly floodwaters in New Orleans are slowly draining now that the Army Corps of Engineers has plugged some of the holes in the levees. Other countries have had many years of experience controlling floods. What are some lessons we might learn from them? Well, here to talk about that is Ira Flatow. He's the host of "Science Friday" and a regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW reporting:

Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: So if we're looking to other countries, there are many cities around the world that have flood protection in place. Right?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, London has the Thames, Venice has the Adriatic; both employ modern flood protection techniques. But I think if you're going to look for a role model, why not look in the Netherlands, home of that little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke, where actually half the country is below sea level and where the Dutch have been making flood control devices for hundreds of years. They have really turned the--controlling rising water into a science, literally, and what they've learned is that while you can't stop the waters from rising, you can work with nature.

BRAND: And they learned that in a very harsh way back in 1953, right?

FLATOW: Yeah, they had a devastating North Sea storm that swamped the Netherlands, killing thousands, and breaching the dykes there in almost 70 places, something the folks in the Gulf states can appreciate. And what the Dutch did was to totally rebuild and consolidate their lines of defense. Sort of like a general who notices, you know, we can't defend a border this big so we have to make the border shorter. So the Dutch limited their exposure to the sea by building a series of seawalls and dykes that cut hundreds of miles off the coast that they would need to defend. And they also raised the heights of their dykes so they're about 40 feet above sea level, and they built giant floodgates. Really these doors that can be opened to the sea to let in coastal waters that can enrich the ecosystems around them. But they can be closed when a storm threatens to flood the city, and this was a very interesting way they did that.

BRAND: So how can that design be copied, if you will, in New Orleans?

FLATOW: Well, you could raise the height of the levees. I'm sure they're going to have to raise those levees up to a certain greater height, and you could build those floodgates to seal off Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico, and this is how that would work. When a storm approaches, you could control the storm surge that raises the level of the water in the lake, which led to the flooding problem in New Orleans. But to follow the Dutch model, you also have to find a way to replenish the natural island barriers that have been taken away by erosion and development and the current levee system, and that's going to take awhile to do that.

BRAND: And a lot of money.

FLATOW: Absolutely. The Dutch spent a fortune on rebuilding the dykes and the floodgates, and they continue to spend a lot of money just maintaining the system. The New York Times quotes that figure at about $1/2 billion a year just to inspect the dykes, the gates, the system that they have there. And the question now is: Does this country have the political will to do that? We'll have to wait and see, but if the past is prologue, it's not very hopeful. Because, for example, according to the official records of the Army Corps of Engineers, current flood control projects in and around New Orleans have been stripped of funding. Projects that cost $700 million got only $10 million, so they don't get finished. The technical knowledge is there; perhaps we could hire a few Dutch engineers. They built the old New Amsterdam. Maybe--why not a new New Orleans?

BRAND: Why not? Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday," a regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY as well.

Thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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