Frida Ghitis: Dutch are confused why Americans seem reluctant to apply lessons they've learned from previous storms
A combination of climate change denial and a preference for small government seem to be to blame, writes Ghitis
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
A dozen years ago, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, I was out of the country, watching the wrenching images from Amsterdam, a city that sits almost seven feet below sea level, in a country that has endured more than its share of death and destruction from raging storms.
Now, once again, the evening news in the Netherlands shows the suffering in the United States. The Dutch are watching stories narrated by drenched Dutch reporters in Texas, showing elderly Houstonians being evacuated and young families carrying their children and their pets to safety as all their worldly possessions sink in the epic flood brought by Harvey. But beyond having compassion, people here are wondering why it is that Americans seem so reluctant to apply the lessons the Netherlands already learned – and at such high cost.
Most reports about the disaster include a discussion about why the Netherlands, with much of the country lying below sea level, has managed to avoid a major flood in decades while the United States is suffering yet another catastrophe.
The answer, beyond the precise technical details the experts here provide, is about culture, politics and psychology.
The United States is in denial.
America’s denial comes in two categories. First, there is climate change denial. Prior to entering politics, Donald Trump tweeted that climate change was a conspiracy against America, claiming that “global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”
And since taking office, President Trump has removed the United States from the Paris Agreement, disbanded his climate change council and seemingly rejected much of establishment science. And scientists – specifically meteorologists – predicted much of what Harvey would do, even if Trump claimed nobody knew how terrible it would be.
The fact is that hurricanes have always occurred, but they have become more destructive with warmer waters and higher sea levels. Hurricane Sandy would not have flooded Manhattan 100 years ago, when sea level was a foot lower. And the trend is sure to worsen.
The other form of denial is psychological; it’s the one that says this will not happen to me, to us. Despite the certainty that more potentially devastating storms will strike, we have not seen a concerted effort to tackle the problem. In fact, the administration is rolling back flood-proof infrastructure regulations without facing much meaningful pushback.
In addition to denial, the United States, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, has a generalized aversion to government. Ronald Reagan famously declared “the nine scariest words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
As it happens, there are some burdens only the government is strong enough to carry. The Dutch learned that battling the sea is one of them.
The wake-up call came in 1953, when a massive storm killed more than 1,800 people, flooding much of the country, damaging farmlands, killing farm animals and destroying property.
Immediately after, the Netherlands established a commission to decide how to deal with a threat of more storms. The commission devised a plan that was enshrined into law, specifying what level of risk is tolerable.
The so-called Delta Law was passed in 1959 and updated into the Water Law in 2009. Under the law, the government launched a major engineering project at great cost, building the now-famous Delta Works, a system of locks and flood protection systems that was completed in 1997.
Instead of waiting for so-called once-in-100-years rainstorms – which now come more frequently – the Dutch have lowered the flood risk to what they calculate is one in 4,000 years. The law even requires that authorities hold the risk in some parts of the country to one in 10,000 years.
The systems now include walling off the water and, at the same time, letting it into canals and other bodies of water, where technicians can regulate levels.
The original Delta Works price tag was steep, $5 billion, but a bargain relative to the cost of inaction. Compare it to one storm in the United States, Katrina, with a total cost estimated by FEMA at $108 billion, and immense human suffering.
Get our free weekly newsletter
When discussing the situation in Houston, Dutch experts note that US infrastructure is poorly maintained, and tolerable risk levels are not defined by law.
But they also acknowledge that there are no guarantees. They are looking at Houston’s tragedy as further reason to upgrade Dutch infrastructure. After all, the sea level, already well above the city of Amsterdam, is projected to rise by as much as 4 feet by the end of this century.
With a risk of that magnitude, there is no room for denial. Dutch voters and politicians know that playing politics with it is simply unacceptable.