The Dutch are to flood control what the Germans are to automotive engineering or the French are to cheese, and the Netherlands' expertise soon might help the Lowcountry.
In a few months, leaders across the Charleston region and officials with the Netherlands are expected to decide whether to begin a more formal planning session to help the region brace for rising seas, heavier rains, future hurricanes and still more coastal development.
Ambassador Hendrik Jan Jurriaan Schuwer and two top officials from the Netherlands' embassy visited this week and began exploring whether experience and innovations can translate into meaningful change here.
In less than two days they toured downtown drainage projects, gave talks about their experiences and met with several dozen government leaders, engineers, residents and nonprofit heads.
Dale Morris, who grew up in Pittsburgh and serves as a senior economist with the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, said so-called "Dutch Dialogues" have been held in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina as well as in the Norfolk, Va., area.
The goal is not to get these U.S. cities to copy what the Dutch have done but to start a wide-ranging conversation about what solutions make the most sense.
"As unique as Charleston is, you're not unique when it comes to floods," he said. "You look like many coastal cities in the United States."
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who invited the delegation with the Charleston Resilience Network, said flooding and drainage issues have emerged as the city's top priority. The problem isn't new — a 19th century Charleston mayor offered a $100 gold coin to whoever could solve the city's flooding — but three big floods in three years have made it more urgent.
"No one ever earned the coin," Tecklenburg said. "I'm thinking maybe the Dutch will earn it."
Learning the hard way
Schuwer joked that while many say God created the world, the Dutch created Holland by using dikes and pumps to reclaim land.
About 26 percent of the Netherlands lies below sea level, while 60 percent is prone to flooding from either its rivers or the sea. The European nation is half the size of South Carolina but has more than three times the population (17 million). More than half of them live below sea level.
In 1953, the Netherlands suffered catastrophic flooding that killed 3,000 people and instilled a national resolve to make sure it never happened again. The nation's commitment to living with water is so strong that most property owners there don't have flood insurance.
"For quite some time we felt safe behind our levees and dams," said Bart de Jong, the Netherlands' counselor for infrastructure and water management. But a study between 2001 and 2006 found 300 weak spots and led to 35 projects that cost $3 billion that shared two goals: reduce the flooding risk and improve the quality of the public space.
So the nation has been building so-called "shared infrastructure" of drainage canals with bike lanes and green space, parks that can be used for recreation or theater space on dry days but can retain floodwater when needed. A dune-like structure built to protect the coastline of Katwijk aan Zee also serves as a parking garage.
It also has pioneered floating housing and a coastal renourishment strategy known as the "sand motor," which dumps dredged sand on one spot on a beach and relies on currents to distribute it.
Even with its innovative flood protections, de Jong said the nation has undergone a revolution in its thinking that involves living with water rather than keeping it out.
"We cannot guarantee that anymore," he said. "We have to prepare for the unthinkable."
Aiming at a moving target
The city already has a sea level rise plan, and Morris said if the city is doing all that, it probably doesn't need help.
"From what we've seen around the U.S., it's a solid strategy, if you have an investment cycle to support it," Morris said.
"That's a challenge," Tecklenburg replied.
While Charleston is attempting to lead on the issue, it's unclear how much the city can do on its own and how much a regional solution is required. Morris said the greatest recommendation from a Norfolk, Va., "Dutch Dialogue" was to create a regional water control authority in the greater metropolitan area — an idea the Virginia General Assembly must approve.
The Dutch delegation asked what was the greatest problem — sea level rise, tidal flooding, storm surges or rainfall, but no one offered a definitive answer.
Mike Horton, chief engineering officer with Davis & Floyd, the engineering firm that has worked closely with Charleston ever since its 1984 drainage master plan, said the answer depends on whether the question involves risk to life, risk to property, or nuisances, such as traffic jams caused by flooded streets.
The delegation also learned about flooding problems and projects downtown and in West Ashley's Church Creek and on Johns Island but did not hear which area had the most at stake.
Others said the issue includes developers who raise their site and worsen flooding nearby, a lack of standards across jurisdictions, embracing the changing coastline and taking advantage of new waterfronts inland and massaging the reality of how new rules could affect land values.
Dan Burger, chair of the Charleston Resilience Network and who works for the state's Ocean and Coastal Resource Management agency, said the Lowcountry's issues with water all interrelate.
"It's not just seal level rise and changes in rainfall," Burger said. "We've basically re-plumbed the coast. Every time we develop an undeveloped property, we've changed the movement of water on the surface."
"This would be easier if the environment were static, but instead it's a moving target," he said. "I think there's an imperative to work on a more cohesive, unified, regional strategy that thoroughly understands our relationship with water."
Raindrops keep falling
As leaders pursue that strategy, there's a growing sense of urgency even beyond the recent flooding.
In November, Moody's Investors Service issued a report saying the growing effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, are expected to have an increasing economic impact on U.S. states, cities and counties.
"This will be a growing negative credit factor for issuers without sufficient adaptation and mitigation strategies," it said.
On Thursday, in a room not far from the Gaillard Center room where the Dutch delegation met, the city's Board of Architectural Review will consider plans to elevate historic homes at 175 Queen St., 30 Ashton St., 9 Gibbes St. and 9 Savage St.
It also will be asked to allow the demolition of 128 Beaufain St., an early 20th century home that Charlestonian Elizabeth Boineau has owned since 1997.
It received 8 inches of water from Tropical Storm Irma, and Boineau said the cost to elevate and renovate it is at least $525,000, more than her insurance paid. She tried selling but had no offers, despite dropping the price.
"It's tough to continue to carry the overhead of a diminishing asset, all the more since it's uninhabitable," she said. "All in, the decision was fairly easy for me, though it's pretty crazy it's taken close to seven months to get here, and hurricane season is just a few months away."