Dr. William Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston led a delegation of 29 Houston and Galveston stakeholders to the Netherlands in September to view that country's storm surge protection system. Jeri Kinnear is publishing a series of articles on the trip.
Following the “take no prisoners” disaster of Hurricane Ike, Dr. Bill Merrell of Texas A & M University Galveston, began a series of meetings to discuss storm surge suppression for the Gulf Coast area. What could we do to protect those living and working on the coast from flood, including the industries, the environment, and general well being of the entire area? His ideas and research gave birth to the concept of an Ike Dike and other means of surge suppression for the Gulf Coast region, ultimately gaining the attention of the Dutch, the experts on water management and control. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Merrell and Texas A & M University Galveston, the Dutch have agreed to assist us with a plan for our coast to prevent storm surge from destroying lives and wreaking economic havoc.
The Dutch Embassy scheduled a series of meetings and expeditions in the Netherlands to see what they have accomplished and how they have accomplished it. Many on Bill’s committee, myself included, and several interested citizens and officials went to the Netherlands to see firsthand how they practiced water/storm management. That is how I wound up taking another trip and I wanted to share with the public what I gleamed from this visit, and yes, I paid my own way.
The Dutch have lived on the sea as merchants, bankers, and seafarers before recorded history. Today, the Netherlands is home to over 17 million Dutch with the 17th largest economy in the world and 10th in GDP per capita. Their country, about the size of West Virginia, sits adjacent to the North Sea on the east and north, and where the major rivers of the Rhine, the Scheldt, and the Meuse run through it and into the sea. High tides, flooding, and heavy rains used to take their toll.
60% of the Dutch people and 70% of the Dutch economy is at or below sea level, some of it up to 23 feet below sea level. It was essential to solve the flooding problem and to reclaim and preserve their land in perpetuity. The old ways of building dikes around each farm, each town, each city did not work. The earliest known flood was reported in 800 AD. The last was 1953 when the people of The Netherlands woke in the middle of a cold February night, inundated with rising waters from the North Sea, and 1,800 citizens lost their lives. It was the last time because after that flood the Dutch decided to mount every available resource; intellectual, technical, and financial, to protect the lives of their citizens, their land, and their economy. There would be no more flooding. Seeing firsthand how they accomplished that goal was most extraordinary.
Over a period of many years, the Dutch implemented what they refer to as a coastal spine. It incorporates various solutions in different areas depending upon the needs of that particular area. It is not one size fits all. Beside flood prevention, the coastal spine incorporates the need for ship passage, the development of ecological zones, recreational zones, land reclamation zones, economic development areas, and wind power harvesting. It is ironic that the old fashioned wooden windmills that were prevalent all over the Netherlands have now been replaced by the modern turbines that supply a portion of the power for their country.
The Dutch say that collaboration is the key to their success. Now, there is a concept. Being a small trading nation, collaboration is second nature, where experts from the worlds of science, industry, government and the private sector come together to solve problems. Our storm flooding doesn’t compare to the problems the Netherlands solved. We, in the Gulf Coast region have the beginnings of a collaboration and with the political, scientific, and business communities, we can do this and just how will be the subject of the next article, so stay tuned.
When I left for the Netherlands with Dr. Bill Merrell’s Ike Dike group to see the Maeslent Barrier gate closure I had no idea what else was in store. The answer was a lot more.
After a side excursion to Amsterdam, I checked into the beautiful old hotel, Steigenberger Kurhaus, located on the beach at Scheveningen, 10 minutes by tram from central de Hague. As it turns out the hotel was specifically selected so that our group could see first-hand how the Dutch handled their beach issues which are very similar to ours - eroding.
Their beaches are mostly man-made from sand that has been dredged from the North Sea...sand that had been lost to storms…sand that they use to reclaim their land…. yes, another concept! Their beaches are much like ours but larger, with more expansive pedestrian and bicycle walkways (no cars), with shops and restaurants, small parks, and large dune areas that also are man-made, but you would never know it unless someone told you. Their fortified beaches provide for a variety of public recreational areas and support many businesses. I thought of our seawall and west end beaches, and I could see these same recreational uses and economic development for Galveston. We simply need to think a little bigger and better than we do now.
Until 2011 the Dutch dredged sand every 5 years from off shore by hopper dredge and deposited it at a designated site. Now, they are experimenting with another means of sand replenishment called “De Zandmotor”. Using dredged sand (21.5 million cu. meters) they have created a hook-shaped peninsula that extends 1 km into the sea and is 2 km wide. The Dutch refer to this process as “building with nature” because the sand will be taken naturally by the currents and deposited on the beaches further downstream without disturbing the sea beds. The Dutch continually update their science, seeking ways to make things better for their country and its citizens.
The much anticipated gate closing day arrived and all of us, 30 or more, piled in the bus provided and set out to see the massive gates at the Maeslant Barrier. Those gates cover twice the distance of the widest part of the Houston Ship Channel. The gates sit at the entrance to the Rotterdam port facilities, one of the largest ports in the world. Those gates provide economic stability to an industry that in 2009-2010 received 612,592 vessels into their port. What struck me most was not only the sheer size, but they didn’t make a sound when they closed. When they are open they simply sit in their cradles, waiting in case flood waters begin to threaten.
The Houston/Galveston region can be grateful that our problems are minute compared to the Dutch. They have solved their flooding issues and have been assisting such cities as London, St. Petersburg Russia, and New Orleans to solve theirs, and have volunteered their knowledge to help us solve ours.
We left the Maeslant Barrier, anticipating what more was in store, and that will be the subject of a third article.
After visiting the Maeslant Barrier closure at Rotterdam, our group, lead by Dr. Bill Merrell, headed for Maasvlakte2/Futureland to see how the Dutch, by land reclamation, are increasing the size of the port of Rotterdam to accommodate the widening of the Panama Canal and increases in shipping. When the project began in 2008, it existed only in plan. When it is complete the area reclaimed, using ocean dredge, will cover 12,500 hectares of port facilities with a water depth of 20 meters to accommodate the world’s largest ships. As is Dutch policy more than just the port was considered. They also incorporated nature and quality of life improvements in their plan. “To stand still is to regress” and thinking pluralistically is the Dutch way.
Our next stop was Delft and the research facilities of Deltares, an independent institute for applied research in the field of water that works closely with governments, businesses, other research institutes and universities world-wide. It is home to various machineries meant to emulate any coastal conditions so that scientists and engineers may study it and determine the best solution. Our city has access to this research assistance. It was a wow moment.
After a question and answer period it was time for dinner in a 14th century tavern. The company and food were fabulous and the place itself was another wow moment.
The last day of our adventure was to Zeeland Province in Southern Holland where after the disastrous flood of 1953, the Delta Plan was implemented. The plan shortened the area’s coastline and closed off the sea by using a series of dikes and dams. A new landscape emerged that includes lakes, dams, beaches, recreation areas, new settlements and industrial zones. The Dutch learned as they shortened the coast to go from solid barriers to gated barriers that allowed the Bays behind them to function as healthy saltwater estuaries. This newly reclaimed land was all man-made.
We visited one of those gated barriers and by all accounts it looks like a long bridge with water passing freely under it, but when high water threatens, the barriers sink into the water preventing the flow of surge. From a large metal door we entered into a closed space that is also a museum, and exited through another door to the outside where you can stand on walkways with the road above you, the water below, and see just how the barriers operate.
Throughout our journey, what impressed me was the collaboration that makes this entire country work; the engineers, the government officials, the architects, and landscape architects, the citizens, everyone comes together on a project for the good of all.
We could us a little more of that attitude for the Gulf Coast. Instead of instant gratification, thinking and planning long term is how serious progress is made. Plurality enhances that progress. Putting it together is what makes the Dutch unique and it is what we, on the coast should embrace. Wrap your mind around a concept for various surge suppression structures (they don’t have to be the same) from Orange to Corpus with the integration of ecological zones, recreational use, economic development, attractive housing, inclusive of the entire coastal area, not just parts. We are all in this together. Think how exciting and safe our region could be. Collaboration is the key! The Netherlands does it. Surely we can do it, too.
A fourth article by Jeri Kinnear that compares the Dutch approach with the Rice SSPEED approach will be published soon.