The 10,000 Year Storm

Posted on Wednesday, March 9th, 02011 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking   chat 0 Comments

The Maeslant Barrier built for a once in 10,000 year storm

There was a maxim that predicted the existence of the longest living trees even before they were discovered, “adversity breeds longevity.”  Using this principle conifer scientists traveled to the harshest mountain peaks and found the Brisltecone Pine alive and over 4,800 years old.

It stands to reason then that a country that had spent the whole of it’s existence defending itself from an encroaching sea, would have the longest term perspective on the subject.  In 01939 when a series of studies in Holland revealed how their country might suffer from from a large storm in the north Atlantic, the Dutch began planning and building.  Only part way through their efforts, a storm in 01953 proved them right, killing over 2,000 people and flooding hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland.  Shortly after the flood these efforts would be doubled and put into a new nationalized government “Deltawerken” (Deltaworks) program.  The Dutch have since been steadily building dams, barriers, and sacrificial flood areas.  This culminated in the final Deltawerken project completed in 01997, the Maeslant Barrier one of the largest man made moving structures in the world.  This barrier opens and closes over one of the busiest ports on the planet, and is strong enough to withstand a once in 10,000 year storm event.  Yes, once in 10,000 years.  At a cost of nearly $1 billion it seems unthinkable that a country could have this much resolve for such a rare event.  In fact the barrier has already been closed multiple times and prevented minor flooding, so it is already paying itself off.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina (considered a 100 year event) which killed over 1,800 people and cost more than $81 billion, it seems unlikely the US will build infrastructure like this to protect the Southeastern seaboard.  I am not sure how much more adversity the residents of the gulf coast need however, they have had a tough decade.  It could be that the culture in the US looks more to dealing with problems of the future with insurance rather than prevention.  But if I lived in New Orleans, I think I would much rather have better levees and barriers, than a new insurance policy.

Devastation of Hurricane Katrina, a once in a 100 year event.

  • americans need work how about land protection systems in the southeast and gulf states…

  • Chris Spurgeon

    Not to be simplistic, but what's the difference between the Dutch and us (Americans)? Why would they agree to fund a project like this, and we don't? Their politicians stand for re-election just like ours and even in a place like the Netherlands lower taxes has an appeal. Was it that the 1953 flooding in Holland was seen as a national tragedy while hurricane Katrina was seen here in the US as a local/regional thing and the over-whelming majority of Americans didn't feel the visceral threat of a repeat storm like the Dutch must have?

  • Farrell McGovern

    Today's American public is not willing to pay for what it needs. We can have a war, but not pay for it, we can suffer natural and man-made disasters and it doesn't cost us anything…but it does cost. But too many worship the dollar (See Calvinism, The Elect, and the real roots of the Prostestant work eithic).

  • jameslucas

    The crucial piece of information missing from this story is the potential savings from building a shorter/cheaper gate. Let's take the example of a hypothetical alternate Maeslant Barrier, which could withstand a 1000-year storm, but not a 10000-year storm: If that design would have $950M, deciding to buy the extra protection was probably not difficult. If that design would have cost $500M, deciding to spend more would have been considerably more contentious.

  • You can't compare the Netherlands and the U.S. like this. The Netherlands is a tiny country both in size and population (about 25% as big as Florida, ~16,700,000 people). A major flood disaster could literally wipe out the entire Netherlands, while a similar event, say flooding 25% of Florida, would only be a small problem nationally, albeit devastating to those affected.

    Also, they have a long tradition of draining the land and fighting the sea. It is part of their national character, much as fighting for freedom is in our own.

    Because of our size, we can weather most any natural disaster. The only ones I can think of that might do the whole country in is if the Yellowstone super volcano goes up, or perhaps if a large meteor hit us, and their is currently no technological solution to either of those scenarios.

    Don't forget that we did have levees to protect New Orleans. That they weren't built to spec reflects badly on the program managers, not on our national will to fight nature to protect our people. A separate issue, on topic for this site, is that they weren't even spec'd to survive more than a cat 3 storm.

  • Farrell McGovern

    The building of under-spec defenses was not a program manager decision, but a political one. It was done to save money because they had never had a storm that would have needed the defenses as they were specified. The specifications were designed with the future in mind…politicians only have the next election in mind. And the American public let's them get away with such short-sighted thinking.

  • ScottT

    A quick note – the Army Corps of Engineers was stating a year after Hurricane Katrina that the storm surge in Mississippi was an approximately 250-year event.

  • TheSnob

    Environmentally speaking, the US is not nearly as human-friendly as northern Europe–pretty much every part of the US experiences huge temperature variations and torrential storms, plus some combination of hurricanes, harsh winters, tornadoes, and earthquakes. As such our national attitude seems to be more about bouncing back from a knockdown than withstanding it in the first place. How else to explain people willingly living in wood-frame houses in Tornado Alley, where some of the world's worst weather occurs on a basically weekly basis?

  • Yes, we have the technology to build engineered steel houses that can withstand any hurricane, and all but direct hits by the strongest tornadoes. Some people are simply too poor to afford the marginal cost; others may do the math and determine that private insurance and government disaster subsidies are the cheapest way to go.

    Personally, If I lived in those areas, I would want a house that is engineered to survive the disaster, rather than losing everything and having to rebuild.

  • watisfictie

    Fighting the water is in the genes of the Dutch and has always been top priority; the Water Boards exists for almost a thousand years, are in fact among the first established forms of government.

    In the 1920’s it was already known that the Dikes in the province of Zeeland (the Deltawerken) were too weak.That the flooding of 1953 occurred was due to a combination of events:

    Finishing the large-scaled Zuiderzeewerken in the north of the Netherlands had priority at that time, since their was a flood in 1916, breaking the dikes al around the Zuiderzee.

    In the 1930’s was the great depression following the world wars, and their was no money left for raising the dikes.

    After post-war reconstruction they finally start raising the Dikes in Zeeland: several dikes had already been raised in 1950 and 1952, but they started too late: the North Sea flood of 1953 (a rare combination of spring tide and a storm surge) took its destructive toll.

  • watisfictie

    Not al areas are protected against a 10,000 year storm, only North and South Holland (Holland is in fact a part of the Netherlands, in the west of the country comprising the biggest cities and it forms the political and economical heart land). It has no realistic evacuation possibilities.

    Other area’s are protected to a lower extend. From Wikipedia ‘Delta Works’:

    North and South Holland: 1 per 10,000 yearsOther areas at risk from sea flooding: 1 per 4,000 yearsTransition areas between high land and low land: 1 per 2,000 years

    River flooding causes less damage than salt water flooding so areas
    at risk from river flooding have a higher acceptable risk. River
    flooding also has a longer warning time, making for a lower estimated
    death toll:

    South Holland at risk from river flooding: 1 per 1,250 yearsOther areas at risk from river flooding: 1 per 250 years.

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