Learning From the Dutch After Superstorm Sandy

May 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Henk Ovink, senior adviser to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and principal of Rebuild by Design, tells MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman how we can think differently about climate change.

It’s been a year and a half since Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast region and we’re still looking for innovative solutions to protect ourselves from future disasters.

Now, the U.S. government is getting help from the Netherlands, where managing water is a way of life. Last April, Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ acting director-general of Spatial Planning and Water Affairs, became a senior advisor to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and joined the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. He created Rebuild by Design, a competition for architects, engineers, planners and community leaders to come up with ways to protect from future storms and rising sea levels. Last month, Rebuild by Design unveiled the final proposals from the ten design teams chosen in November 2013.

These proposals include creating a protective system around Manhattan that stretches from West 57th Street to the Battery and up to East 42nd Street, building sea walls and other lines of defense and creating barrier islands from southern New Jersey up to Rhode Island. But Ovink doesn’t expect the competition to find one, ultimate solution to climate resiliency.

“Every time a disaster happens, we want a solution that will solve all our problems like a silver bullet and then get back to business,” Ovink told MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman. “I think you have to change the paradigm, change the perspective on the future and not say a disaster is something you can solve. A changing future is something we want to live with. We want to live with water and embrace that culture of uncertainty.”

With more than 20 percent of the Netherlands below sea level, the Dutch have been living with water for centuries. In the 1950s they created Delta Works, a series of dams, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers in the southwest Netherlands to protect a large area of land from the sea. Water boards, governing bodies in charge of managing water barriers and levels, are a part of every region. But in the United States, working together across state lines has been less than successful.

“The question is how do you seduce or convince people and organizations to collaboratively go across?” Ovink said. “The water system is regional. It doesn’t care about Republicans or Democrats, it’s there. It doesn’t care about the Hudson being the border between New York State and New Jersey.”

But Ovink is optimistic. “I moved with my family to the U.S. when Secretary Donovan asked me to join the Task Force. I wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t optimistic. It’s in my nature but also really it’s in the opportunity. I think Sandy showcased, hitting New York, that we can actually make a difference here,” Ovink said. “If we can come up with solutions here that can be examples for the future for other places around the world, we can create a new standard of resiliency and rebuilding.”