Recently I was invited to moderate the first of a two-day conference between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Dutch Rijkswaterstaat (RWS), the Netherlands’ government agency whose responsibilities include advancing that nation’s coastal resilience. While there were many technical presentations, the primary purpose of the conference was to identify specific areas of possible future collaboration between the two agencies that could advance our mutual interests in coastal resilience. Hurricane Katrina was more of a wake-up call for the Dutch than for the U.S. They saw the potential for their extensive system of dikes and levees to be undermined, just as were those that were supposedly protecting New Orleans. And they concluded that they had to try different approaches and combinations of techniques to provide a greater level of protection.
This space is insufficient to permit a full report on all the material I learned during the U.S. and Dutch presentations, but these are the main takeaways:
- the Dutch made a new national commitment post-Katrina to provide for coastal resilience; the U.S. has made no such national commitment, even after Superstorm Sandy;
- Sandy was nowhere near as bad as it could have been for New Jersey, and particularly New York;
- both Holland and the U.S. need to gather all the data we can on what coastal protection measures work, even though we unfortunately aren’t doing this; both the U.S. and Holland have only made a dent in that knowledge;
- adding “Green” (wetlands and the like) to “Gray” (sand) solutions appears to make a lot of scientific and ecological sense, but we need to commit the funds to test how these Green solutions work over time; and
- there is no such thing as “zero risk,” people and businesses need to be informed about the remaining risk even after we have implemented effective protection measures.
Do a Google news search on flood risk management and you will see daily reports on what is taking place in communities throughout England every day as people deal with the hard decisions about managing risk from coastal as well as riverine flooding. You will also see more and more articles about similar discussions in U.S. communities, but we are far behind some countries in Western Europe as well as Australia. Our’s is a large country – so large that one of the Dutch conference participants pointed out that we can absorb the cost of losses from events such as Katrina and Sandy and bide our time until the next one hits. We cannot, however, rely on our size forever. Individuals, businesses, communities and even our armed forces cannot thrive in an environment where we are just waiting for the next disaster to hit. The new Flood Risk Management Standard announced earlier this year by the President is not a substitute for the leadership that’s needed from Washington and from the States. That is not a criticism, rather, a call to action.
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