AVALON - The Dutch are known the world over for constructing dikes and successfully holding back the sea. The borough constructed its first rock groin in 1939.

With the idea that there may be a bit of catching up to do, and with Hurricane Sandy still a recent memory, two high-ranking officials from the Netherlands were the invited guests of the borough Wednesday.

Mayor Martin Pagliughi introduced Rob de Vos, general consul at the United Nations for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Arjan Braamskamp, economic minister from the Netherlands consulate.

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"The Netherlands have been involved with coastal protection forever. We thought we could share strategies," Pagliughi said.

Braamskamp and de Vos toured the island Wednesday morning and seemed impressed with Avalon's efforts to keep the sea at bay. The borough doesn't have any dikes, but it does have a large dune system, stormwater pumps, rock groins, bulkheads and other coastal flood measures. After touring the dune area, de Vos said he felt like he was "back in the Netherlands."

"We have seen some pioneering work being done in your town. That's the first message we will take home," de Vos said.

Braamskamp, who has been assigned by the Netherlands embassy in Washington to coordinate Dutch collaboration, outreach and support for the tri-state region in the wake of Sandy, said the Dutch have been dealing with the sea for seven centuries. Braamskamp said 60 percent of the population lives in places that would be under water without flood measures, some as low as 20 feet below sea level. There have been some failures, including a 1953 flood that killed about 2,000 people. That was the last major ocean flooding problem the country had.

There is no national flood insurance in the Netherlands, but if there is an event, the government will take care of rebuilding efforts. The government is responsible for all flood zones.

"There is never a discussion about where you live or where you build your house," de Vos said.

Besides national spending on flood control, towns have taxing authority for "flood protection, water management and water quality" in the Netherlands.

Braamskamp said most residents feel safe, though de Vos said "complete safety is illusion." The Dutch, it seems, are learning to work with the sea and the rivers in their country instead of just trying to hold them back.

"We have to live with the water and not fight the water. We moved our focus to work with water instead of against it. Since 2006, we realized we have to give room to our rivers, a fundamental change in our philosophy. We're no longer expanding our coast in the Netherlands," de Vos said.

It's not exactly retreat. One massive project completed a decade ago is a dike, which Braamskamp said is as big as "two Eiffel Towers," that most of the time allows water in, but has been closed twice in storm events. It is never fully closed.

"We close it 97.5 percent and allow 2.5 percent of the water in. If it was completely closed, the doors would buckle, and that would be more expensive than a 2.5 percent flood," Braamskamp said.

A new harbor in Rotterdam is designed to float and even has floating houses in it. The Dutch are also putting vegetated dunes and salt marshes in to reduce wave energy in front of their dikes. They call it a "muddy coast."

They are also experimenting with offshore reefs. Avalon was ahead of the Dutch on this, installing a concrete reef system from Eighth to 11th streets in 1993, though it was not footed properly and sank under the sand.

The Dutch love to experiment with flood protection. Braamskamp outlined an experiment in which a coastal area that normally gets sand replenishment every four or five years got 20 years worth of sand, at a cost of $90 million, at one shot to see whether it dissipates slowly and has the same impact for less cost. The experiment is ongoing, but sand appears to be dispersing too quickly to make it cost effective.

Pagliughi was impressed with the billions of dollars the Netherlands devotes to flood control. Pagliughi told the visitors America spends about $150 million a year on beach protection. Pagliughi said the cost-benefit analysis done for beach protection is based on the economic value of the property being protected but doesn't take into account tourism revenue from beaches, which bring billions in tax revenue to government coffers.

De Vos said his country does not have a cost-benefit analysis system but is looking into one. Braamskamp said it will include social aspects of a project such as improving the quality of life.

Braamskamp said protecting the coastline is "mandated by law" in his country, but he acknowledged they get a lot of money to do the job.

The Dutch effort is mostly to provide land for homes and farms, though recreation is one offshoot. Big beaches also help reduce flooding.

"Our smallest beaches are 500 feet wide," Braamskamp said.

De Vos gave some advice. He said to plan for the extreme and keep all management options open, including dunes, levees, dams and other barriers. His country is already planning for sea level rise, more extreme storms, erosion, land subsidence and saltwater intrusion.

Braamskamp said the old philosophy was to build a dike big enough and strong enough. He noted the technology for that is proven, but with sea level rise it becomes more expensive and "nobody wants a 20-foot wall in front of their home."

Avalon officials were impressed with the permitting process in the Netherlands. Getting permits for beach work is much harder here.

"The problems are the same but not as bad in the Netherlands because they don't deal with the political problem," Pagliughi said.

De Vos said Sandy offers a good time to act.

"Our message to you is don't waste a good crisis," de Vos said.

The Dutch are working with officials in the states affected by Sandy but also with the federal government, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who have sought advice from the world's experts.

Contact Richard Degener:


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