High Water in North Sparks Dutch Evacuations

By MIKE CORDER | January 6, 2012

Dozens of farmers were warned to evacuate land north of the Dutch capital Thursday as a dike protecting the area threatened to collapse.

Local mayor Ben Plandsoen told national broadcaster NOS that a polder – reclaimed land that is drained by pumps and mills – would likely be submerged under some 40 centimeters (16 inches) of water if the dike protecting it breaks.

“You just don’t know how the dike will hold up,” he said. “It is saturated, so you don’t know how much pressure it can take.”

Elsewhere, riverside residents were offered sandbags, even as the low-lying Netherlands appeared to be largely winning the latest skirmish in its never-ending battle to stay dry.

The densely populated nation of nearly 17 million, 25 percent of which lies below sea level, has been drenched by heavy rain and buffeted by strong northwesterly winds for days.

The rain saturated dikes and filled drainage canals and rivers while gales lashing the coast hampered efforts to pump the excess water out of canals and into the sea.

In neighboring Belgium, newspapers reported that a 64-year-old man died Thursday morning in the town of Roosdaal, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) west of Brussels, when high winds blew a massive door on top of him.

Dutch authorities appealed to the some 85 farmers who keep livestock on below-sea-level land near the village of Tolbert 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Amsterdam, to voluntarily evacuate because the dike was threatened.

Dutch media reported that most farmers ignored the voluntary evacuation and meteorologists said early afternoon that the worst rainfall appeared to have passed. With less rain and lightning fast winds forecast over coming days, the situation was expected to ease although river levels could rise before then begin to fall.

Even so, the Defense Ministry said it had put 50 troops on standby with inflatable boats, trucks and ambulances in case they were needed in the north.

Authorities also cordoned off river banks in some areas of the densely populated south. In the city of Dordrecht, thousands of sandbags were made available to residents whose homes or businesses were threatened by the rising levels of three rivers.

Television images showed water lapping at windows of houses built next to one of the city’s rivers.

Inspectors also patrolled dikes along the Oosterschelde estuary in the south Thursday and along coastal regions in the north as powerful wind gusts battered the North Sea coast, national water authority Rijkswaterstaat said in a statement.

Water authorities further north said early Thursday that the situation there was under control after they pumped millions of gallons of water into the sea, lowering water levels in drainage canals that crisscross the country.

They also deliberately flooded uninhabited nature reserves to lower water levels elsewhere in populated parts of the region.

The Groninger Museum in the city of Groningen was closely monitoring water levels in the moat that surrounds the building.

The museum said in a statement that some of its exhibition halls were threatened, and it was in close contact with water authorities about whether it needs to close and shift some exhibits, including a recently opened show of clothes by Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaia.

No deaths or injuries have been reported in the Netherlands, though the strong winds caused delays at the country’s main airport, Schiphol, and on railways.

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