News Articles

U.S. media coverage of Dutch post-1953 Delta Works creates own storm

PR statements perceived as critical

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

NEELTJE JANS, the Netherlands - What was initially seen as a critical comment made about relief efforts in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has brought U.S. media attention to the Dutch Delta Works information centre and its public relations spokesman Ted Sluijter. Sentences from statements that are part of the usual answers given by the information centre were taken out of context and interpreted and quoted as criticism by an Associated Press reporter.

Seeking quotes on Katrina from politicians and experts in Europe, the reporter larded her story with the situation in the Netherlands, where, according to her story ‘sixteen million people live below sea level.’ Although the story then continues with facts and figures about the February 1953 Flood and the subsequent Delta Works, a quote by Sluijter alleges that Hurricane Katrina evacuation plans and coordination of the relief efforts were inadequate.

The AP article was widely used by U.S. and other Western newspapers and internet sites. This in turn led to unqualified e-mail reactions, both by U.S. citizens and by Dutch expatriates in the U.S.

According to Sluijter, who has been with the Delta Works information centre for over 25 years, he only gave information on aspects of the massive re-diking project in the Netherlands. During the AP telephone interview, Sluijter also had remarked that the television images from New Orleans evoked memories of what he had seen in the Netherlands.

The publicity following the news items brought many U.S. and other foreign news organizations and television crews to Neeltje Jans, the former ‘work island’ for one of the major dike-and-bridge construction projects in the Zeeland river delta. Information on the massive, man-made Delta Works, which secured the area devastated in 1953, also is available from the Public Works Department (Rijkswaterstaat), the agency responsible for the project.


An unanticipated and extreme high tide accompanied by a severe spring storm hit the Delta region during the night of January 31, 1953, catching most inhabitants unaware of impending doom. The number of dike breaches eventually rose to 89, totaling a length of 45 kilometres. Many of the 1.853 Dutch casualties were caught in their sleep. The storm also ravaged parts of eastern England where over 300 people perished.

Relief efforts only were started when dawn showed the extent of the disaster and news trickled in from devastated villages and farms. Evacuation was ordered for 72,500 people, with over 10,000 houses and buildings destroyed and tens of thousands of others heavily damaged. Tens of thousands of livestock drowned, requiring a massive cleanup. Over 350,000 acres were inundated with the brackish water, which impacting crops for years after the flood. Repair and reconstruction cost an estimated 1.5 billion guilders.

The massive Delta Plan, which closed off most Delta inlets and re-diked all waterways, was set in motion almost immediately and was finally capped in 1997 with the construction of a retractable dam in the Nieuwe Waterweg, near the port of Rotterdam. The Delta Works cost a total of 12 billion guilders, an estimated $7 billion.

Since then, the Dutch embarked on another round of dike upgrading along the sea and the rivers, frequently over the objections of environmental groups and nature preservation activists.