How Dutch stormwater management could have mitigated damage from Hurricane Florence

The world's only water ambassador, appointed by the Netherlands, says damage from hurricanes could be lessened with the help of Dutch-innovated stormwater management

Parts of the country ravaged by Hurricane Florence will slowly dry out and begin to clean up in the coming weeks. Many communities in the Carolinas hadn't yet recovered from Hurricane Matthew two years ago. The relentless cycle of disaster, rebuild, repeat has many coastal residents feeling numb and helpless. And climate scientists say we can expect more frequent, more powerful storms in the future. 

We heard that the Netherlands, one of the most flood-prone places in the world, almost never floods. Holland is about twice the size of New Jersey and is one of the world's most densely populated countries. Much of it is below sea level, yet the Dutch don't bother with flood insurance. They don't need it. As the U.S. cleans up from Hurricane Florence, we were wondering, do the Dutch have a solution?

"The storms are perhaps man-caused and you can debate that, but the catastrophes because of the storms? Uh, those are man-made."

It was a disaster that unfolded in slow motion. For four days Hurricane Florence crawled up the East Coast dumping record rainfall – more than 35 inches in North Carolina – flooding thousands of homes and taking dozens of lives.  

The destruction from Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey and Maria cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Florence is another chapter in a story we know all too well.  

We met a Dutchman – Henk Ovink – who says it's time to rewrite America's disaster playbook entirely.

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Henk Ovink, the world's only water ambassador, says the amount of damage caused by hurricanes can be lessened with better stormwater management

CBS News

Henk Ovink: There's only one opportunity. That is when a disaster hits. It's like a X-ray. It tells you where all your vulnerabilities are and gives you the opportunity to step up and say, "We can do better."

Ovink is the world's only water ambassador, a role given to him by the Dutch government.

He advises the U.N., 35 individual countries, and a dozen U.S. cities. He travels the globe like a missionary preaching the gospel of flood prevention. One of his latest stops was Houston, still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

Bill Whitaker: So What's the biggest challenge in the United States?

Henk Ovink: You're solution oriented. You have a collective. When things happen, you come together. You wanna build back and repair and be ready when disastrous things happen. But there's not so much a belief that you can actually prevent a disaster from happening.

Bill Whitaker: But how do you go about preventing a disaster like Katrina, Harvey, Sandy? It-- it just doesn't seem possible.

Henk Ovink: We can't prevent them from happening. But the impact that is caused by these disasters, we can decrease by preparing ourselves. I think the catastrophes we see in the world are all man-made. The storms are perhaps man-caused and you can debate that. But the catastrophes because of the storms? Uh. Those are man-made.

It's a radical statement. We went with him to the Netherlands to learn what shaped his thinking: it's water. Water is everywhere in this country known for its charming canals, picturesque dikes and windmills. But they're not just quaint tourist attractions. For centuries the canals and dikes have held back water, the windmills pump it away. Ovink took us up in a helicopter so we could see it from above.

Bill Whitaker: From what I can see here, it looks as though the entire country is man-engineered.

Henk Ovink: Yes

We flew over Rotterdam, his hometown, so he could show us how the country has been engineered.

Bill Whitaker: How much of this city is below sea level?

Henk Ovink: Almost everything.

Bill Whitaker: When was the last time this flooded?

Henk Ovink: This doesn't flood. And we--

Bill Whitaker: Because of the precautions you have taken.

Henk Ovink: Yeah.

The Dutch allocate more than a billion dollars a year to manage their flood infrastructure. Some of it is massive, like the Maeslantkering storm surge barrier.

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The Maeslantkering storm surge barrier

Bill Whitaker: Oh, this is, these are the gates.

Henk Ovink: They're big.

Bill Whitaker: They're enormous.

Henk Ovink: It's like an Eiffel Tower, like the Paris Eiffel Tower, on its sides. But then two.

Bill Whitaker: Each one the size of the--

Henk Ovink: Each one.

Bill Whitaker: --Eiffel Tower.

The gates guard one of the largest ports in the world and most of the Dutch population. They don't have hurricanes like we do, but ferocious storms with hurricane-force winds can blow in from the North Sea and push in huge storm surges. When that happens, the two arms seal off the Rhine River and Rotterdam. The gates took six years to build and cost $500 million.

Bill Whitaker: That's a big investment for something that you've only had to use once or twice since it was built.

Henk Ovink: $150 billion were lost in New Orleans. I don't think I need to say more. How many people were killed? Sandy, another storm, $70 billion. We don't have those damages.

But they did in the past.

Bill Whitaker: Your Katrina moment was in--

Henk Ovink: '53.

Bill Whitaker: 1953?

Henk Ovink: Yeah, '53 was our real wakeup call. A storm blowing in from over the North Sea from the west.

Bill Whitaker: What happened?

Henk Ovink: It actually swallowed the southwestern part of the Netherlands. The dams, dikes and levees broke and the water flowed in, taking away lives of almost 2,000 people. A lotta of families were ripped apart.

The Dutch still refer to it as "the" disaster, because they haven't had one since – not a single death from flooding in 65 years. They've learned the lessons of the past well. Dutch engineers calculate how high and strong dikes and dams must be to withstand the most extreme weather – a 1-in-10,000 storm.  

Rotterdam is at the forefront of defensive design. This basketball court can hold 450,000 gallons of storm runoff. This sloping park atop a shopping center is a storm surge barrier. And this world-class rowing facility doubles as a flood reservoir. The Dutch pride themselves on blending form and function.

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Manmade dunes protect the town of Katwijk from the sea, underneath the dunes is a large parking garage

Bill Whitaker: What is this place? They look like dunes.  

Henk Ovink: They are dunes.  

Bill Whitaker: But, I take it, this is the Netherlands, so these aren't just dunes.  

Henk Ovink: These are man-made dunes.  

Henk Ovink took us to one of his favorite projects along the North Sea. The beach town of Katwijk was vulnerable until Dutch engineers created these natural looking dunes. Many beaches in the U.S. have man-made dunes, but they're nothing like this.

Bill Whitaker: And these dunes protect the town from a sea surge or a big storm--

Henk Ovink: Sea surge, storm, and also we incorporate sea level rise of the future.

They also integrated urban planning. To unclog Katwijk's streets when tourists flock to the beach and to raise the height of the dunes to 25 feet above sea level, engineers built a parking garage.

Bill: Under the dunes?

Henk: Under the dunes.

Bill Whitaker: So under this whole stretch is-- it looks like, I don't know, several football fields. Under all of this--

Henk Ovink: Is a parking garage--

Bill Whitaker: --is a parking garage.

Henk Ovink: Almost 700 cars can park here.

Bill Whitaker: Could a structure like this have saved New Jersey beach communities from Sandy?

Henk Ovink: Yes. It could.

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Much of the Netherlands is below sea level

You might call the Netherlands the storm drain of Europe. Several major rivers empty here.  When France and Germany flooded like this two years ago, most of that water ended up in the Netherlands, but towns and cities in Holland weren't inundated, largely because of something the Dutch are doing that defies logic. They're lowering dikes and dams along some rivers.  

Henk Ovink: Rivers are living elements in a landscape. And they become bigger when there is more water and become smaller when there's less and they need to have that capacity.

Bill Whitaker: So you went from flood control to controlled flooding.  

Henk Ovink: Yeah.

Bill Whitaker: You have to let some places flood so you can keep other places dry?

Henk Ovink: Yeah.  

"It's a choice in the end. It's a human choice. We can think about that future as an opportunity or close our eyes and do nothing."

The Dutch call it "room for the river."

Bill Whitaker: So this is where your old house was?

Vic Gremmer: Yeah.

Vic Gremmer, a social worker in the village of Werkendam, personally had to make room for the Merwede River. Hundreds of people like him had to move so their property could be used as floodplains.  

Bill Whitaker: So the government comes and asks you to leave. Did you have a choice?

Vic Gremmer: Not really. We-- we had a choice-- to leave or stay, but on their conditions.

The conditions: he could remain in the area, but had to sell the family home to the government. He used the money to build a new house on higher ground.

Bill Whitaker: What'd you think of that when they tore your house down?

Vic Gremmer: The old house, there are 25 years of memories. It's really the end of-- I'm getting emotional. (LAUGH)

But he said he did it for the greater good. Allowing the swollen river to pool in this new floodplain could save thousands of people from flooding downstream in Rotterdam.

Bill Whitaker: The idea of moving people out of the floodplains in the U.S., we'd be talking about millions of people. That would be a really tough sell.

Henk Ovink: You pay for people to be in the most vulnerable places of your country. There's a national flood insurance program that is going bankrupt. You pay disaster bills every year. And the rebuilding, it's costing a lot of money. It's wasted.

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Correspondent Bill Whitaker with Henk Ovink

CBS News

That waste seems built in to our disaster DNA.  In the U.S., FEMA deals with natural disasters. Its primary mission is not to prevent, but to respond. FEMA helps disaster victims build back – usually the same structure in the same place.  

Dawn Zimmer: People's apartments were flooded, people's businesses, our critical infrastructure, all of our substations. So we had no power.

Dawn Zimmer was mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy hit six years ago. She told us the city of 55,000 people, right across the Hudson River from Manhattan, was almost entirely underwater.  

Bill Whitaker: In some neighborhoods, ten feet of water?

Dawn Zimmer: Ten feet of water. Yes. and there was fish in people's apartments. it was waste. It was oil. It was a toxic mix in our city.

She said Hoboken got money from FEMA to put things back pretty much the way they were. But she wanted to rebuild smarter.

Dawn Zimmer: It doesn't help for me to have a fire station that is individually protected, but there's water all around it. That fire station won't be able to help anyone in the middle of a storm. It just doesn't make sense.

Bill Whitaker: So why can't you just get the money and use it as you see best?

Dawn Zimmer: That's just not the way it works.

She says that's when Henk Ovink entered the picture. Shaun Donovan, then secretary of Housing and Urban Development, tapped Ovink for President Obama's Hurricane Sandy task force. The two came up with an idea for an international design competition to fix what Sandy had destroyed, following the Dutch philosophy: rebuild differently for the future. Ovink helped convince the federal government to cough up almost a billion dollars for it.

Bill Whitaker: You know in the U.S., that sounds kind of crazy.

Henk Ovink: Yeah.

Bill Whitaker: $1 billion for a competition to rebuild? Something like that had never been done before?

Henk Ovink: Never been done in this capacity.  So, they also had to believe my blue eyes and my story. And saying, "Okay, we believe this young man coming from the Netherlands. Let's work with him."

A proposal that will protect Hoboken and its neighbors was awarded $230 million of the competition money. A Dutch design team came up with the winning plans, with a Dutch twist: a storm surge defense disguised as a park with a boathouse, benches and outdoor seating as barriers to keep the Hudson from drowning the city again. Coming up with the plan was the easy part. Convincing residents to go along was much harder.  

Dawn Zimmer: There were people that were calling out, like, "Give back the money."

Bill Whitaker: So let me get this clear, that even after the devastation of Sandy, people were not convinced that they needed flood protection?

Dawn Zimmer: People are really concerned, for example, about their property values. What would the property values of Hoboken be if we're flooded on a regular basis and our entire city is destroyed?

After consulting with the community, the plans were amended, and most residents got on board. Hoboken plans to break ground next year. It could be the first test for Ovink's vision in the U.S.

Dawn Zimmer: And I'm very confident that when that next storm hits, because it's going to hit – it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when – and we will be prepared and we will be a model to show that this approach can work.  

Henk Ovink: It's a choice in the end. It's a human choice. We can think about that future as an opportunity or close our eyes and do nothing and let it happen to us and see more death and despair, more assets and people lost.

Produced by Nichole Marks. Associate producer, Sarah Turcotte.