Dutch Lessons For The Gulf Coast

Hurricanes are a fact of life for coastal residents of the southeast. And even as New Orleans pumps out Katrina's flood, scientists know the city will face the same threat again.

The question is: how to hold back the sea. CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips reports that one proven way is the Dutch way.

This may sound familiar: A storm surge overwhelms a low-lying coastline. Flood barriers give way. Thousands killed, tens of thousands made homeless.

Except this isn't the U.S. Gulf coast in 2005. It's Holland in 1953. These aren't called the Low Countries for nothing.

What the Dutch learned then, and how they responded, may hold lessons for post-Katrina America.

"When we have an increase water level four meters above sea level then half of Holland is below water," said Peter Persoon of the Dutch Sea Defenses Authority.

The Dutch response was not simply to shore up the dike system that failed, but to build a new system of outer sea barriers – massive, complex structures stretching for miles. It cost about $8 billion – a lot of money for a small country – but the Dutch knew it was a matter of pay me now or pay me later.

"The choice we have to make here is to give safety to one million people and it cost money," said Persoon. "But it's cheaper than afterwards when we have a big disaster and one million people get flooded."

The greatest challenge was to protect Rotterdam, yet still allow shipping into its crucial port. The answer was gigantic and ingenious moving arches that can be swung out into the river and then sunk there to block any incoming storm surge.

The Dutch long ago learned that this is a really simple problem — if you want to keep the land and water where they are supposed to be, you have to spend whatever it takes to build a barrier to keep them apart.

With climate change, rising sea levels and more severe storms in the future, the Dutch think they'll have to close this barrier every three or four years.

In Holland they think the choice in the U.S. is inevitable.

"New Orleans, what I know, is also low. So by the rising of the sea level you have to build something," Persoon said.

"No choice?" asked Phillips

"No choice or leave the area," Persoon said.

The same choice they faced here.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com