Can the US Replicate the Success of the Delta Works?

How the US can learn from the Netherlands’ Delta Works system

On June 27th we visited Deltapark Neeltje Jans to see one of the largest storm surge barriers in the world, which is just one part of the Netherlands’ extensive Delta Works system that keeps the country—more than half of which lies below sea level—from being swallowed by the sea. The facility, part of which is housed in the storm surge barrier itself, serves not only as a museum to explain the operation of the Delta Works but also as a memorial to the victims of the devastating Flood of 1953. In a visceral theatrical production, visitors are able to experience the night a heavy storm caused extensive flooding in the Netherlands that killed nearly 2,000 people and displaced thousands more, and ultimately prompted the Dutch people to find a way to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again—an effort that would eventually result in the construction of the Delta Works.

Part of the Delta Works at Deltapark Neeltje Jans, a storm surge barrier that prevents devastating flooding in many regions of the Netherlands.

The structure was impressive (though as a Public Policy major I was more awed by its success from a managerial rather than an engineering perspective), standing at about 3 kilometers long and made up of a series of retractable gates that can stop the flow of water in the event of an anticipated storm surge. What was even more striking to me was the decision to incorporate the storm surge barrier with a road on top of it, so that the structure served as both a means of transportation as well as protection against flooding.

Once the project was finally completed in 1997, the estimated cost of the Delta Works was approximately 5 billion Euros, which is almost $6 billion USD. Though this cost may seem superfluous and therefore irreplicable in the United States, one should consider that the damage from that single night in 1953 amounted to more than half a million USD, not to mention the loss of human life, farmland, and infrastructure. Following that tragedy, the Dutch were able to amass political support for preventative measures against storm surges that Americans have seemingly been unable to, even in the wake of devastating storms such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, which together caused nearly 2,000 deaths and cost over $170 billion USD.

A closer look at the storm surge barrier. The gates are currently open, allowing water to flow freely through the barrier. In the event of a storm, these gates would close, preventing the excess water from crossing the barrier.

Unlike the Netherlands, the vast majority of the US lies well above sea level. However, some of its most important cities—including New York City and New Orleans—are relatively low-lying and, therefore, susceptible to flooding during strong storms. Though the US has invested in some storm surge infrastructure, such as the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lake Borgne Surge Barrier near New Orleans, it doesn’t compare to the Netherlands’ extensive Delta Works system.

In the event of a natural disaster, the benefits of investing in lifesaving, anti-flooding infrastructure in America’s most vulnerable cities clearly outweigh the costs. However, as with most policy issues in the US, politicians balk at the seemingly outrageous cost of creating this infrastructure, which would likely reach into the billions of dollars. However, as even US President Donald Trump has pointed out, investing in infrastructure creates many jobs and stimulates local economies. Rallying enough political support to fund such vast infrastructural endeavors may not be as difficult as it seems, particularly as coastal cities begin to contend with the inevitable sea level rise and intensification of storms that will accompany climate change.

-Amanda Peele