2020 has officially seen the worst Atlantic hurricane season since records began in the 1850s. Usually, consecutive storms are named with reference to consecutive letters in the alphabet: Storm Arthur, Storm Bertha, Storm Cristobal, and so on. This year, we ran out of English letters, and for the second time – the first being in 2005 – had to use Greek letters. While the average season sees only 12 storms, the latest Hurricane Iota is already the 30th named storm to strike this continent. It has also been this year’s most devastating, achieving astonishing wind speeds of about 150 mph.  

This season has cost us dearly. So far, 439 lives have been lost and over $40.26 billion of damage has been done by this year’s storms. The kicker? The 2020 hurricane season hasn’t even officially ended. We still have a week to go.

This may be the worst hurricane season ever, but it’s certainly not the first of its kind. And governments around the world have done much – short of actually addressing the root cause – to mitigate destruction that the seas so regularly meet upon our civilizations. 

Here’s a look at two terribly destructive floods – and the megastructures we’ve built to defend against them.

The Dutch Delta Works

No one has mastered the caprices of the sea like the Dutch. Indeed, with about 25% of the Netherlands below mean sea level – the next 30% averages less than one meter above the sea – the Dutch have a storied history of flood control stretching back to the 9th century CE. 

Flooded village on Zuid-Beveland island, Netherlands, following the North Sea Flood of 1953. COURTESY OF BRITANNICA.

The Dutch Delta Works are the latest such marvel of Dutch engineering. This series of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees and storm surge barriers built to remain invisible across the extensive Dutch coast remains unsurpassed anywhere on Earth. The American Society of Civil Engineers have even declared it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. 

Still recovering from five brutal years of Nazi occupation, the Netherlands (along with England, Belgium and Scotland) was subjected to the great North Sea flood of 1953. The flood killed 1,835 people and 200,000 cattle, destroyed 43,000 homes, flooded 2,000 km2 of land and displaced a further 72,000 people in the Netherlands alone. Twenty days after the flood, the Dutch government commissioned the Delta Committee to come up with a plan to ensure that the country never sees such widespread destruction again. 

The committee’s solution was the ambitious Delta Works. Built over four decades and costing more than $7 billion, these Works not only function today as intended, they do so without disturbing the local environment. The mouth of the Eastern Schelde River was originally intended to be closed, just like the other rivers. But when the Delta Committee’s surveys revealed that closing the river would destabilize the unique salt water environment of that area, they decided to spend an additional $3 billion to construct an “open dam” that would allow for the normal flow of fresh and salt water. 

Dutch Delta Works NASA space picture

NASA captures the extent of the Dutch Delta Works in this snapshot from space. COURTESY OF NASA.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Delta Works have revolutionized how flood control is done. They stand as an astounding achievement, replicated in parts around the world. It is perhaps fitting that a plaque near the Eastern Schelde barrier reads “Here the tide is ruled by the moon, the wind and us (the Dutch).”

Japanese Sea Walls

In 2011, approximately 70 km off the coast of the Oshika Peninsula in Northern Japan, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan struck. The resulting tsunami lashed waves exceeding 133 feet upon Japan’s coasts, causing nearly 18,000 deaths and the nuclear meltdowns in the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The World Bank estimated that the tsunami cost Japan’s economy $235 billion, officially making it the costliest natural disaster in history.

Some parts of the sea walls in Japan have windows through which locals can view the sea. COURTESY OF THE GUARDIAN.

In Kamaishi in particular, 13-foot waves surmounted a seawall – the world’s largest, erected a few years ago in the city’s harbour at a depth of 207 ft, a length of 1.2 mi and a cost of $1.5 billion – and eventually submerged the city center. But it seems like the Japanese local governments did not heed the risks of over dependence on seawalls.

In order to better defend against floods, local governments collectively spent over $12 billion to build 245 miles of 41-foot concrete seawalls along the coasts. Generally, the sea walls replaced breakwaters that were completely overwhelmed by by the 2011 tsunami. Even if waves taller than these new walls hit Japan again – like they did in 2011 – the walls will delay flooding and give people more time to evacuate. Of course, as an unfortunate result, residents of these coastal towns no longer have any view of the sea.

“It feels like we’re in jail, even though we haven’t done anything bad,” said oyster fisherman Atsushi Fujita, according to Reuters.

The sea walls in Japan have been criticized for being too reminiscent of a prison. COURTESY OF THE GUARDIAN.

Environmental concerns were mostly ignored during the construction of the sea walls as well. While the 2011 tsunami might have improved oyster density in the area by stirring up sea floors, the sea walls have separated land from sea, preventing the natural flow of water and damaging the ecosystem oysters rely upon. 

Residents also fear that tourism in these coastal towns might be endangered. Some authorities have tried to accommodate by adding small windows to the walls.

“They’re a parody,” Yuichiro Ito, who lost his home and younger brother in the tsunami, told Reuters. “It’s just to keep us happy with something we never wanted in the first place.”

Are measures being taken to protect against floods or other natural disasters in your area? How have these measures affected your life and do you think they are justified? Let us know in the comments section below!