Friday, 3 June 2011

Keeping back the sea

So Wednesday we were up in Drenthe, the northeast part of the country. Yesterday we went to the opposite end, the far south west where the North Sea meets Belgium, to Zeeland see how the Dutch control the sea. Down there, it all started with the great flood of 1953.

A massive storm in the North Sea in January 1953, combined with a pretty high tide, put the water 18' above mean sea level. While a bunch of the land near the sea is in fact above sea level, the whole place is protected by various dykes, that (just like New Orleans a few years ago) breached with the storm. They estimated that flooding killed 1,835 people and forced the emergency evacuation of 70,000 more. Floods covered 9% of Dutch farmland, and sea water inundated 1,365 km² (527 square miles, 337,000 acres) of land. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned, and 47,300 buildings were damaged of which 10,000 were destroyed. Obviously, this pissed off the Dutch, and they said it would never happen again. Enter the Delta Project.

The plan was to basically dam it up so it couldn't happen again, but environmentally, this was problematic, because it meant closing off huge estuaries that were the home to fertile fishing and mussel grounds. So the ever practical Dutch built a series of storm surge dams that are open unless they need to protect the place. Itty bitty little 9 km long structures, like the Oosterscheldekering (Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier).
Part 1 of 4 protecting this section of the estuary
See the arc of white in the distance? Part 2 of 4
This is open to the sea (on the left in the above photo), and the tide just whooshes through when it's coming in, like it was when we were there.
Water in a hurry
You get to crawl through the innards of this structure, getting literally inside the bridge, getting up close and personal with the hydraulics, the massive gates and the story of how it was built.

The top of the innards
Hydraulics controlling the gates
Just to show you what they are up against, the bottom red line in the photo below is 3 m above mean sea level, the point at which they close the gates because the water is too high. The top line was the 4.2 m mark of the 1953 flood. The thing has been closed 24 times since opening in 1985.

That's a lot of water
So the dam itself was cool. However, getting there was not "half the fun". The access to the dam (and the museum about it, including movies of the 1953 flood) is inside something called the Deltapark Neeltje Jans, which is a really lousy and cheesy "theme park" complete with kids waterpark, seal and sea lion shows, 3D Hurricane Experiences and bad rides -- which costs €21 per person to go in.

Worse, it turns out that Thursday June 2nd was Ascension Day, a holiday in Holland, or at least this part of it (which we only learned about mid-day). So instead of running every half hour, busses to and from this place were running every 2 hours. This made visiting the dam a very time limited proposition, so it was a bit of a challenge.

The dam is closest to the town of Middelburg, which would probably would be a nice town to visit were it not for the fact that on Ascension Day, everything is closed, and the streets look like morgues.
The main shopping street at 11 AM
But the town has nice building, including the Stadhuis...
I'm not an architect, but this is one interesting mix of styles Abby, first started in AD 885 (but added to several times since)...
Towers and chapels
Inside the courtyard. More steeples
The shady part of the courtyard
...and other old buildings.
Circa 1532
Circa 1735
It's also a moated town, with nifty medieval fortifications, and and 2 windmills to boot.
The original bridge is sadly gone
An idyllic scene
Built in 1732
And the main reason we went there Thursday is that it is home to a really good market.
Smoked mackerel
This guy sold nothing but local strawberries with lots of locals buying them
Boxers, 5 for €10
Books on the left, clothes on the right
This guy sold nothing except remote controlled helicopters
...all in the shadows of the Stadhuis.
Ah, THAT'S where the crowd is
I think in the end it should have been obvious it was a national holiday. Amsterdam Centraal station was EMPTY at 7:15 AM, the train was empty despite stopping everywhere (including peoples houses, I think, when we got to Zeeland proper), and on the bus from Middelburg to the dam, we saw thousands of people on the bike paths, windsurfing, kiteboarding, on the beach, driving campers -- the Dutch on vacation for a 4 day weekend.

Visiting the dam was a kick, and I'm glad we did it. But Middlelburg is 2½ hours away by a "stop everywhere" train, and the dam a half hour past that. Maybe not the best daytrip we could have picked.

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