Storm surge barriers: A lesson U.S. needs to learn from Europe?

(CBS News) For the last 30 years, the Thames Flood Barrier, a high-tech barrier that is raised and lowered almost like the gates to a medieval castle, has been protecting the heart of London from the kind of catastrophic storm surge that hit New York last week.

Andy Batchelor helps keeps the vast concrete and steel structure in London operational -- always with one eye on the weather. With his decades of experience, he could see the trouble headed New York's way. Batchelor said, "I spend half my life looking at the weather and to see the three weather systems coming in to -- what happened in New York, I was absolutely amazed to what on earth that was going to give."

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No surge has ever breached London's barrier. Ten massive steel gates stretch 500 yards across the River Thames. In times of danger, they're raised to defend the city against the invading North Sea.

The barrier was built after Britain took its own hammering in a deadly flood in 1953 -- a disaster covered by CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and his team. Murrow said in January 1953, "When you watch a great flood, it seems futile to see puny men pitch their strength against the water."

A North Sea storm surge swept through the streets of villages east of London, killing more than 300 people.

Reporter Howard K. Smith said in January 1953, "All week long, they've been pulling bodies out of the water, they have found bodies entangled in trees and lying on roofs, naked, their clothes torn off by the wind."

With millions living in low-lying London, city planners knew it could have been even worse. They also knew it was likely to happen again unless drastic action was taken. They went big.

Looking across the massive structure these days, you get the impression it's been designed to defend against a once-in-a-lifetime storm surge. But the fact is, since the Thames barrier went operational in 1982, the gates have been raised 119 times to protect the city.

"That's 119 times there would have been a risk of the river going over the fences in central London," Batchelor said.

London flood defenses are second in size only to the Netherlands. That same North Sea storm killed 2,000 people there in the 1953 floods. It also prompted the construction of a massive system of flood defenses, which includes the Maeslant Barrier, whose sweeping butterfly wings are as long as the Eiffel Tower and four times heavier, and the Eastern Sheldt Storm Surge Barrier, which stretches more than five-and-a-half miles and crosses three channels.

Engineers from the U.S. visited the Netherlands and Britain in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to learn how to build more powerful flood defenses.

Asked what advice could be given to engineers in New York, said, "If engineers came over from New York what they would be asking questions relevant to their locality. We can say, where are there similarities? And that's where we can share information and we'd be very happy to do that."

Shutting down one river is a lot easier than facing the complex system of waterways around New York. But with the damage to New York already estimated at $18 billion, it may be a question of pay now or pay later.

For Charlie D'Agata's full report, watch the video above.

To help victims of Sandy, donations to the American Red Cross can be made by visiting Red Cross disaster relief, or you can text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.