The storm left thousands dead and tens of thousands more homeless. An entire region was flooded. Massive damage spanned hundreds of square miles. In the storm’s wake, the nation vowed that this would never happen again. Within days, a government initiative marked the design of the largest flood control project in modern history.

That sounds very rational, even responsible, so it’s no wonder this wasn’t the U.S. This nation was the Netherlands. Politicians in our own country need to stop shuffling their feet and approve projects that will protect not just people, but also homes and the economy from the risks of major storms.

This past Saturday marked the 56th anniversary of the 1953 North Sea Flood, which killed thousands across several European countries including the Netherlands, Great Britain and Belgium. These countries responded efficiently by constructing systems like the Deltaworks in the Netherlands. Floodgates, levees and dams encircle much of the country’s coasts and harbors, protecting them from flooding. One navigable channel over a thousand feet wide can be completely sealed by a movable barrier that is among the largest moving structures ever built. The Deltaworks, which dwarfs the New Orleans system, can prevent damages from storms far larger than the 1953 storm.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s disastrous effects, it is embarrassingly stupid that the federal government has not invested in a proper flood protection plan for vulnerable areas of the Gulf coast. The cost of the Deltaworks project over the span of fifty years of construction totaled less than 10 percent of the cost of damages from Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi. While the costs to maintain such an ambitious system are very great for the Netherlands, much of these costs go back into the economy in the form of jobs for engineers, contractors and technicians whose livelihoods are based on the Deltaworks.

So what is really being done to prevent a future disaster like Katrina? The levee system proposed early last year by the Army Corps of Engineers is estimated to take over three decades to build and will cost about $9 billion. This system would be built to a 100-year storm standard, which means it protects Louisiana from storms that occur only around once in a hundred years. Compare this to the Deltaworks, which is built at 250 to 1,250-year storm standards, and you get an idea of how much more can be done for the Gulf states.

But this project’s price, which is merely a fraction of the estimated $150 billion in damages to the economy caused by Hurricane Katrina, is considered too high for many legislators. The corps is expected to recommend an even weaker levee system, similar to those proposed before Hurricane Katrina hit, that would only stand up to a 25-year storm standard. At a reduced cost compared to the current proposal, this levee would not even provide enough protection to guarantee that all Louisiana citizens would be able to buy federal flood insurance without raising the elevation of their homes at great cost. Such a proposal is stunningly insulting to those whose property – and families – were damaged or destroyed by the disaster.

While the situation in New Orleans isn’t the same as the Netherlands, significant resources are required to protect the city. The civil infrastructure funds that are part of the most current iteration of the stimulus bill in Congress seem like an obvious source of funds. But, as it turns out, the obvious just isn’t so obvious to legislators. A relatively paltry sum of $4.5 billion was allocated to the Army Corps of Engineers for a number of responsibilities nationwide, of which flood control is only one.

Some Republicans have proposed that funds be thrown at the corps for more extensive projects, but perhaps legislators should look at who else is equipped to handle New Orleans’ challenge. Other groups like the Louisiana State Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration claim they can undercut the corps by a significant amount. Congress needs to look at who is best equipped to use federal funds to save lives and protect cities like New Orleans from major storms.

While it’s been over three years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf coast, progress toward an acceptable flood control system for the region is still lagging. The Netherlands’ response to its own natural disaster is a perfect example of how our nation should approach this problem. If the federal government is committed to protecting the lives of people living in the Gulf region, it cannot cheap out and sit on its hands when it comes to protecting citizens.

Ben Caleca can be reached at

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