Can the ‘masters of the flood’ help Texas protect its coast from hurricanes?

On a sunny Friday in late May, a jubilant wedding party
scrambled to the top of a colossal sand dune in this tiny Dutch
beach town for a photoshoot, bridesmaids’ arms flailing as their
high heels sunk in. The wedding ceremony had just ended at an
outdoor venue nestled behind the six-story mountain of sand, which
blocked the view of the North Sea.

At the town’s main strip nearby, a mostly older crowd sipped
beers and wine and nibbled on ice cream cones. No one seemed to
mind that they couldn’t see the water.

Unlike in the United States, such obscured ocean views are
common in the Netherlands, where people aren’t allowed to build
homes or businesses directly on the coast — and for good reason.
Three of Europe’s major rivers run through the compact country on
their way to the ocean, and almost one-third of it lies below sea
level, making it extremely vulnerable to deadly storm tides.

The dunes in Noordwijk are part of a world-renowned storm
defense system that covers the entirety of the Netherlands’
coastline — much of it hefty enough to protect against a monster,
10,000-year storm. The system has become a beacon for Texas as it
looks to guard the eastern flank of the low-lying Houston-Galveston
region — home to millions of people and the nation’s largest
petrochemical complex — from hurricanes. Despite its
vulnerability to deadly storm
, the upper Texas coast has no comprehensive storm
protection system.

The dunes near the
Langevelderslag beach in Noordwijk are 65 feet high and more than a
mile wide, and they can protect against a 10,000-year storm. David
Zacek / The Texas Tribune.

That vulnerability became apparent after Hurricane Ike in 2008,
when scientists warned that the
storm — the costliest to ever hit Texas at the time — could
have been much worse for the Houston-Galveston region if it
hadn’t changed course at the last minute. And although 2017’s
Hurricane Harvey made landfall much farther down the coast, its
torrential rains put large swaths of Houston underwater and drove
home the widespread damage a hurricane could inflict on the
nation’s fourth-largest city.

The Netherlands experienced a similar reckoning after a freak
storm in 1953.

That North Sea flood, which the Dutch simply call “the
disaster,” breached neglected and war-battered dikes, inundated
an area bigger than the city of Houston and drowned more than 1,800
people — a death toll nearly identical to that of Hurricane
Katrina after it swamped New Orleans and parts of Mississippi.
Within weeks, a special Dutch commission initiated a sweeping
public works program that it vowed would keep the country dry

“The 1953 flood was a wake-up call,” said Marcel Stive, a
hydraulic engineering professor at the Delft University of
Technology. “While the economy was resurrecting and doing well
[after World War II], the public and politicians realized our

The Delta Works, later declared one of the “Seven Wonders of
the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers,
surrounded a fifth of the country’s population with an ingenious
combination of dams, dikes, locks, and first-of-their-kind storm surge
. It took decades to finish it all — much longer than
expected — but the first project was completed just five years
after the storm.

In the 66 years since the disaster, no Dutch citizen has died in
a flood. In Texas, hundreds of citizens have perished in floods and
hurricanes just in the past two decades.

Flood risk has remained so low in the Netherlands that
homeowners don’t buy flood insurance and building codes behind
the flood barriers are virtually nonexistent.

The Netherlands has remained mostly dry for so long that polling
shows a majority of citizens have little idea that their country is
livable largely because of masterful water management — an
unintended side effect that Dutch officials are trying to address
for fear that people won’t support future flood control

After engineering what they tout as “the safest delta in the
world,” the Dutch have ramped up the export of their expertise;
they have advised several U.S. states and other coastal areas
around the world on protecting lives and property from storms and
rising sea levels.

Bill Merrell, an outspoken oceanographer at Texas A&M
University at Galveston, began preaching the Dutch gospel after

In early 2009, just a few months after the storm, he introduced
a concept dubbed the Ike Dike that became his personal crusade. It
included storm surge barrier gates and dozens of miles of
dune-topped levees. He insisted it was the best way to keep the
next big hurricane from inundating hundreds of thousands of homes
and potentially shuttering the massive industrial complex along the
Houston Ship Channel, which produces about 13 percent of the
nation’s gasoline and nearly 30 percent of its jet and diesel
fuel. The Ike Dike mirrored the Dutch concept of stopping storm
surges right at the coast to provide maximum protection.

The industrial complex
along the Houston Ship Channel in 2016. Michael Stravato / The
Texas Tribune.

Now, a decade later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the
Texas General Land Office are moving ahead with a plan that would
do just that. A coastal barrier system — part of a coast-wide
protection plan estimated to cost as much as $32 billion — is
still in the early stages; the agencies have made significant
revisions in recent months after receiving thousands of public
comments opposing the initial vision, mainly because it would have
left thousands of homes and businesses stranded on the exposed side
of a proposed system of levees and required the condemnation of a
significant number of buildings.

Those changes have made it look even more Dutch, with
12-foot-high sand dune-topped levees — the preferred term for
dike in the United States — meant to protect beachfront homes and
businesses and a redesigned storm surge barrier system aimed at
being more failproof and environmentally friendly.

The plan, which the agencies will put out for a second round of
public comments in September of next year, is set to be finalized
in 2021. Getting buy-in from locals is the first of many obstacles
it will face.

As the government moves forward with the project, The Texas
Tribune traveled to the Netherlands to learn about how the Dutch
pulled off such an ambitious coastal protection project and how the
Netherlands’ model could help guard the Texas coast.

“The Dutch have faced storm surge and flooding as an
existential threat to their country for centuries,” said Texas
Land Commissioner George P.
, who heads the General Land Office, the state agency that
oversees the coast.

As a result, most Dutch citizens don’t question sizable
government spending on flood control or complain about paying
higher taxes — about $119 annually per household — to maintain
a system that has protected them from the sea for generations.
It’s a mentality that stands in stark contrast to the United
States, where many elected officials are staunch champions of
smaller government and lower taxes.

If completed, Texas’ coastal barrier would become just the
second coastal protection system in the United States, after New
Orleans’ revamped levee system, and the largest that the Army
Corps has constructed in its 200-year history — so large it would
be visible from space.

Selling the Texas project to members of Congress from inland
states that don’t face similar threats will be difficult, Bush

“We can’t rely on near misses and hopes to defend the
coast,” Bush said. “At least for my time here, I’m going to
be focused on this and I’m not going to rely upon another storm
to try to get funding. I’m going to do what I can within my

Then there is the question of which local entity would pay to
maintain the coastal barrier. Once the Army Corps is done with a
project, it typically hands over the keys and walks away.

“There are multiple possibilities of failure in this,” Bush
said. “Our focus has to be on just taking it step by step, not
losing sight of the big picture.”

A ticking clock

The first time Dutch flood-control experts visit Galveston
Island, they are always shocked to see homes and businesses perched
next to the water — no levees, dunes or gates of any significance
to guard them.

“In the United States, it’s like, ‘I want to have a view,
I want to see the sea from my house, so I’m going to build on the
beach,’” said Jeroen Aerts, director of the Institute for
Environmental Studies at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “It’s
completely different in the Netherlands.”

Many Dutch officials say that mindset reveals the biggest
differences between the countries: Americans are more self-reliant
— and their properties are most often insured — so federal and
state government focus on emergency response and cleaning up after
a natural disaster much more than preventing the damage.

But with so much at stake on the Texas coast — millions of
lives, billions of dollars worth of property, and many of the
nation’s biggest fuel and chemical producers — some state
officials have pushed to break that mold.

In a worst-case scenario hurricane, storm modeling shows that
part, if not all, of the facilities lining the Houston Ship Channel
would be inundated, along with hundreds of thousands of homes and
businesses and the Johnson Space Center, home to NASA. And as the
climate warms and the population grows, scientists warn, the threat
of such a hurricane is becoming greater.

“Sea level is rising, the storms are getting larger, and the
clock is ticking,” wrote Jim Blackburn, codirector of Rice
University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation
from Disasters Center, in a recent white paper.

Over the years, Blackburn also has hammered that the impact of a
worst-case storm on the industrial complex — in addition to
economic calamity — could lead to one of the biggest
environmental disasters in U.S. history. Storm modeling shows that
a major surge could impact thousands of industrial storage tanks
near the Houston Ship Channel that hold crude oil and hazardous
chemicals; if even one ruptured, scientists say, the toxins could
inflict irreparable harm on Galveston Bay, one of the region’s
most productive estuaries and a national ecological treasure.

To help prepare for that storm, scientists and students at
A&M at Galveston and Rice have spent years studying a country
that was unprepared for its own worst-case scenario six decades

Mina Verton holds up a
photo of her family’s farmhouse, which was swept away in the 1953
North Sea flood. Thana Faroq / The Texas Tribune.

The disaster

It was about 5 a.m. on February 1, 1953, when two of Mina
Verton’s cousins hammered on the front door of her family’s
stone farmhouse on the rural island of Schouwen-Duiveland in the
southwestern Netherlands. It had been storming all night. Surges
had breached nearby dikes, they said, and the island was sure to

The home had been inundated during a dike breach before, during
World War II, when the Nazis bombed Dutch flood defenses as the
country resisted occupation. The water had topped out at about a
foot and a half then — and that’s what they expected would
happen again.

But when it finally arrived, the icy water quickly blew past
that point. In less than an hour, it swallowed the ground floor of
the house and moved on to the second. The family climbed out
windows onto the roof. It was freezing cold and still raining.

At around noon, terrified neighbors began to float by on scraps
of wood. The family thought they were safe on the roof, but their
sturdy stone house eventually gave way to the strong current.

They partly jumped, partly swam to the roof of a nearby storage
shed, which soon broke apart; Verton, her mother and sister were on
one piece, her father and brother on two others.

“You could hear people drown,” Verton said through a

Verton, then 12, held her 5-year-old sister in her lap and
prayed. They floated on the scrap of roof for another 24 hours,
until it bumped into a still-standing dike that they wearily
climbed onto.

In the end, 1,836 people lost their lives. Verton lost her
brother, grandmother, several aunts and uncles, and a cousin. Her
grandmother was never found; she was either swept out to sea or
buried as an unidentified victim.

When they finally returned to the island more than a year later,
there was nothing left of their farm.

No one talked about the disaster for decades after, including
Verton. That was in part because it was so traumatic, but also
because many people in the region, part of the country’s “Bible
belt,” viewed the flood as the hand of God.

Mina Verton looks through a
scrapbook of family photos at her home in Zierikzee. Thana Faroq /
The Texas Tribune.

But a hydraulic engineer had warned of the likelihood of such a

In fact, just a day before the storm hit, Johan van Veen
presented a plan to his superiors at Rijkswaterstaat — the Dutch
equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers — to fix the aging
dikes in the region. His warnings had gone unheeded for some 15
years amid the Great Depression, which had started in the U.S.
before battering Europe, and World War II.

“The ’30s and the ’40s weren’t exactly years you would
think about doing something extra — staying alive was No. 1,”
said Stive, the hydraulic engineer at the Delft University of

The disaster was a huge blow to the reputation of Dutch
hydraulic engineers, who fancied themselves the world’s leading
water wranglers. In 1920, they had broken ground on a
long-envisioned public works project that wielded new technologies
to guard thousands of acres of vulnerable coastline in the
northwest, created a freshwater lake, and reclaimed hundreds of
thousands of acres from the sea for agriculture and

In a 2006 essay, Dutch social scientist Cornelis Disco explained
the national dismay that followed the flood’s devastation:
“That the Netherlands should have been so unprepared for such a
devastating storm surge did not fit the image of the nation as
indomitable master of the flood.”

Clogs, canals, and windmills

Three of Europe’s major rivers run through the heart of the
Netherlands — Dutch for “low country” — on their way to the
North Sea, and a fourth snakes through the country’s far north.
Along its 280-mile coastline, the notoriously stormy sea is capable
of hurling deadly swells into the country for days at a time.

The first dikes were built in the Netherlands in the early
Middle Ages by wood-clog-wearing settlers keen on farming the soggy
but fertile delta.

Eventually, local water authorities took over construction and
management of the country’s growing flood control systems. They
were the first democratically elected institutions in the
Netherlands — some say the first in Europe — and they spent
centuries creating a vast network of dikes and canals, along with
thousands of the now-iconic squat windmills to pump water through

The country’s geography has been transformed over the
centuries as the sea has swallowed and spit out land at will, and
the Dutch have clawed much of it back. By surrounding submerged
land with dikes and pumping out the water, the Dutch created
hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and set the stage for a
country that’s about 16 times smaller than Texas by square
mileage to become the world’s
exporter of agricultural products after the
United States.

But the dikes didn’t stop the North Sea, which regularly
unleashed devastating floods that have drowned thousands of Dutch

As early as the 17th century, hydraulic engineers envisioned
large-scale public works projects to shield the country from the
sea. But the technology didn’t exist to pull it off. That changed
early in the 20th century with the Zuiderzee Works, which brought
the construction of major dams and dikes to the northwestern part
of the country. Its most iconic component was the Afsluitdijk, a
20-mile-long causeway that severed the Zuiderzee, a large, shallow
bay, from the Wadden Sea. The Afsluitdijk, which remains a point of
Dutch national pride, was completed in 1932 and turned the
Zuiderzee into a freshwater lake that remains one of the
Netherlands’ largest drinking water supplies.

The Zuiderzee Works put the Dutch on the map as innovators in
storm management and made the knowledge of the country’s
hydraulic engineers a valuable export. But it wasn’t enough, and
the ’53 flood proved that.

They needed to respond in a big way, and quickly.

‘God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands’

Just two weeks after the flood, a new entity called the Delta
Commission convened to hatch plans for what would become the
country’s largest flood defense system. It would be expensive —
a tough sell in a country still reeling from the war — but the
commission vowed that it would stop flooding for good.

Thanks to van Veen, the engineer who had warned of the
country’s vulnerability to flooding, the commission had rough
blueprints. But it ultimately went beyond those plans, constructing
three locks, six dams, and five first-of-their-kind closable storm
surge barriers made of metal and concrete. They effectively sealed
off the entire southwestern coast, ground zero for the ’53
disaster, blocking storm surges from entering the inlets where the
Rhine, Maas, and Schelde rivers emptied into the North Sea.

By the time the Dutch finished the Delta Works, 44 years after
the disaster, they had accomplished something the International
Federation of Engineers declared “the most prestigious hydraulic
engineering project in the world.” Two of the projects were
declared national monuments.

The Delta Works, which cost upwards of $11.4 billion in
today’s dollars, became part of a 2,300-mile system of natural
and manmade barriers that now corset the major rivers, lakeshores,
and sea and guard 100 percent of the Netherlands’ coastline.
Another 8,700 miles of barriers sit inland. Without them, more than
60 percent of the country would flood every day.

How the Netherlands stops flooding

Source: Rijkswaterstaat.
Credit: Connie Hanzhang Jin.

At some point during all of this, a saying emerged: “God
created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

Today, only about 100,000 of the country’s more than 17
million citizens don’t live behind some kind of flood barrier,
and they’re responsible for repairing any flood damage to their
property. Everyone else who lives behind the dikes must be made
whole by the government if their homes are ever inundated,
something that’s only happened once since 1953, when a
drought-weakened dike burst in 2003 and flooded hundreds of

“Any [flood] impact, in their minds, is failure,” said
Samuel Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores
at Texas A&M University at Galveston, one in a team of
researchers that has traveled to the Netherlands to gain flood
control wisdom it has incorporated into its own proposed
Houston-Galveston coastal protection system.

The 33-year-old Eastern
Scheldt Barrier, made up of 65 giant pillars separated by vertical
gates, is the largest of the Delta Works projects. Thana Faroq /
The Texas Tribune.

The Ike Dike

Texas may have its own Johan van Veen in Merrell, the A&M
Galveston oceanographer who has spent the past decade warning of a
coming disaster and trying to convince the government that he has a

In early 2009, just a few months after Hurricane Ike devastated
the Houston-Galveston region, Merrell introduced the Ike Dike.

That year, he traveled to the Netherlands to get advice on how
to hone the plan, which consisted of beachfront earthen levees
topped with sand dunes along the entire lengths of Galveston Island
and Bolivar Peninsula, plus a gate system between the landmasses
and another gate system on the far end of Galveston Island near San
Luis Pass. He included a “ring” levee around the city of
Galveston to protect it from incoming and outgoing surges.

After Merrell returned to Texas, he peddled his plan to state
and local elected officials as well as local civic and business
groups, arguing that his beachfront system was superior to one
further inland — a concept that had been proposed by Rice
University researchers — because it would protect everyone.

Locals loved the concept, but politicians were not so convinced,
at least at first.

the Army Corps and Texas General Land Office launched a study to
find the best solution. Last October, the agencies proposed a plan
that would build 17-foot-tall levees on the backsides of the main
roadways on Galveston and Bolivar and install 39 vertical storm
surge gates in..

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News 2
Can the ‘masters of the flood’ help Texas protect its coast from hurricanes?