Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A Dutch parallel for Manitoba

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ZEELAND, Netherlands -- The Dutch experienced their flood of the century on February 1, 1953.

Large areas of the Netherlands, including Amsterdam, are below sea level. People have fought the sea throughout their country's history. Sixty years ago, they lost the battle.

The North Sea surged into southwest Netherlands, filling 200,000 hectares of farmland and flooding countless towns and villages. More than 1,800 lives were lost. Seventy-two thousand people were forced to evacuate. Forty-seven thousand buildings were damaged.

The water rose 4.2 metres above sea level. The country's dikes failed. Many people were asleep when the water washed over their homes.

It's impossible to stand on the Zeeland dike system and not think of our own fight to hold back the torrents. There is water everywhere in this lovely country and much of its history rests on the fickle nature of the sea.

It defines them, just as spring flooding defines us.

After the devastation of 1953, the Dutch fought to reclaim their land. With considerable help from other countries, they repaired the damage and worked to prevent a reoccurrence. The result is the $3.5-billion Delta Project, an elaborate system of dikes, dams and sand dunes that battle nature. So far, it's a success.

The dike gates have been closed seven times since 1990, each time averting disaster.

The lessons of Zeeland have worldwide application. Delta Works guide Marcel Hanse says the Dutch were called to New Orleans after that city's 2005 devastating hurricane and flooding.

"We went there and they (American officials) came here," says Hanse. "In the end they didn't want to spend the necessary money. We couldn't put our name on a project that wasn't properly funded."

Much as our floodway was seen by some as wasteful at the time, so too were the Delta Works. In addition to the initial outlay, they cost $7 million annually to maintain, a figure necessary to prevent further catastrophe.

"If we don't maintain the dikes and dunes, 60 per cent of the lowland would disappear in a storm," says Hanse.

There was a poignancy visiting the Netherlands at the same time Manitoba was in the middle of another flood battle. I read about Raymond Stott's death online the day I walked through the Watersnood Museum, a four-building museum detailing the effects of the 1953 flood and the rebuilding efforts.

One multimedia exhibit tells the personal stories of each of the people claimed in 1953.

Everywhere in the Netherlands, buildings are marked with high-water marks. Most of them are well above head level.

Manitobans live with the rivers, but we are fortunate enough to have peaceful relationships much of the year. We complain the riverwalk at The Forks is underwater too much of the spring and summer; we are inconvenienced but not in danger.

It's spring when our rivers can turn deadly, when lives are lost, livelihoods threatened and homes destroyed. There is a puniness to our ability to cope, a sense of emergency that comes with every melt. No matter how smart or capable we are, water will spill its banks.

We are never going to beat the waters, any more than the Netherlands will. At best, we can tame them and live in uneasy truce, one eye open at all times.

We only need to remember the lessons of 1950 and 1997. We have Duff's Ditch. They have the Delta Project. We each have the collective memory to know we can never take our waterways for granted.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2011 A2

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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