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How the Dutch Mastered the North Sea

Fully one-half of The Netherlands lies below sea level -- but since Medieval times, the Dutch have used a clever and comprehensive system of dikes and levees to keep the country relatively dry. The characteristic windmills that once dotted the countryside were used primarily as pumps to keep the North Sea at bay.

But often even the best-laid plans are no match for Mother Nature. In 1953, hundreds of miles of dikes along rivers gave way in a violent storm and the flooding killed nearly 2,000 people.

After the catastrophe the Dutch government vowed "never again" and set about building a system of dikes and sea walls that could not fail. As the city of New Orleans struggles to recover, engineers are taking a few lessons from centuries of Dutch experience.

In their most ambitious project, the Dutch built three giant sea walls, called storm surge barriers, to protect the fragile inlets and dikes. The barriers remain open in normal weather -- but during a storm surge 63 hydraulic-powered sluice gates, each 20 feet tall, keep the rising waters out.

The massive system of dikes and the storm surge barrier are a point of pride for the Dutch. But now scientists and engineers are struggling to take climate change and rising sea levels into account in the nation's eternal fight to hold back the sea.

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Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.