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How the Dutch Mastered the North Sea

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How the Dutch Mastered the North Sea

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How the Dutch Mastered the North Sea

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

When the flood walls and levees gave way in New Orleans, the people of the Netherlands watched with special interest. Fifty percent of the Netherlands lies below sea level. Since medieval times, the Dutch have used dykes and levees to keep the country dry. Five decades ago, those dykes gave way in a storm and the flooding killed nearly 2,000 people. After the catastrophe, the Dutch government built a system of dykes and seawalls designed not to fail. Eleanor Beardsley visited the seawalls, and she has this report.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

In the southwestern Dutch province of Zeeland, the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt rivers meet the North Sea. It was here in 1953 that the rising sea surged up the rivers, wiping out more than a hundred miles of dykes and submerging farmland and villages. Fifty years later, three giant seawalls known as storm surge barriers stretch along the coastline protecting the fragile inlets and their dykes from the North Sea. While the mile and a half of barriers remains open in normal weather, during a storm surge, their 63 hydraulic-powered sluice gates are lowered.

(Soundbite of clinking noise)

BEARDSLEY: Hans Yagur(ph), who works for the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, is in charge of operating the 20-foot-high storm gates.

Mr. HANS YAGUR (Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management): About five days before we know some storm is coming, 24 hours before storm surge is appear, we will be at this place with a lot of people, and then we check our water levels and the predictions, etc. And then one moment, we have to decide: `Will it stay open, or are we going to close?'

BEARDSLEY: Yagur says the decision to close is a difficult one, and the gates have only been lowered 25 times since 1996.

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Unidentified Woman: (Dutch spoken)

BEARDSLEY: A museum near the storm barrier recalls the 1953 disaster with a film and exhibits. The museum also celebrates the Dutch response to the disaster. Known as the Delta Project, the 30-year, $3 billion plan built stronger and higher dykes and new seawalls to protect them. The Delta plan seals off the country's coastline from North Sea surges and leaves only the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp to be left completely open.

(Soundbite of bell tolling)

BEARDSLEY: In the nearby town of Fuwenpalder(ph), 79-year-old retired farmer Fred Bohart(ph) lived through the floods of 1944 when the British bombed the dykes, as well as the 1953 catastrophe. He says seeing what's happening in New Orleans makes him thankful for the system of dykes and seawalls that protects the town today.

Mr. FRED BOHART (Flood Survivor): Of course, we remember just what we had here in 1953, the current and the storm. And in New Orleans, if people are living too below sea level, I think they need the same system as well as we have here.

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BEARDSLEY: The Dutch began claiming land from the sea as early as the 1500s by building clay dams or dykes between two higher points. When the tide went out, the dyke gates were closed and the water was not allowed back in again, enabling the land to dry. The names of Dutch cities such as Rotterdam and Amsterdam reflect the country's struggle with water.

(Soundbite of field trip)

Unidentified Student #1: (Dutch spoken)

Unidentified Student #2: (Dutch spoken)

Unidentified Student #1: (Dutch spoken)

BEARDSLEY: This school class was one of many visiting the storm surge barrier. Teacher Arianda Jung(ph) says the dykes are a point of pride in the country.

Mr. ARIANDA JUNG (Teacher): It's typically Dutch, so it's a must-see in our country. And especially with the "Action News" from New Orleans, of course, this is a hot item for us.

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BEARDSLEY: Sea barrier operator Yagur says storm records dating back to 1130 helped them build dykes and seawalls to withstand the type of violent storm that would only occur once every 4,000 years. But with climate change leading to rising sea levels, Yagur says they are no longer sure about their calculations. He illustrates the recent change in attitude by reading the inscription on a plaque dating from the inauguration of the storm barrier in 1980.

Mr. YAGUR: (Dutch spoken)

BEARDSLEY: `We control the tides, the moon and the wind,' it reads.

Mr. YAGUR: Twenty-five years ago, they thought they could control. And I think nowadays, that's not true.

BEARDSLEY: Yagur says that scientists and engineers are struggling to take climate change into account. In the meantime, he says, the Netherlands will keep their dykes strong and continue to control every element they can in the never-ending battle to hold back the sea. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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