Miami-Dade County

He kept the Netherlands dry. Now he aims to defend Miami and the world from rising seas.

The Special Envoy for Water Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands leans over the railing separating the new raised sidewalk in Miami Beach’s Sunset Harbour neighborhood from the sunken well of the old one below, where a restaurant has smartly set up a dining patio with tables and umbrellas. He nods in approval and snaps an iPhone picture.

Henk Ovink, once the man in charge of making sure the flood-prone Netherlands stays dry, has been dispatched by his government to help the world figure out how to cope with sea level rise. He’s on a three-day tour of southern Florida, and has some good news and some bad news for two Beach officials who have spent Thursday morning showing off the first results of the city’s hugely ambitious, and expensive, effort to overhaul the way it builds streets, buildings and neighborhoods in response to the increased risk of inundation posed by climate change.

The good news, Ovink says: The Beach’s incremental approach, which involves rallying community support as it goes about raising streets and sidewalks, installing massive pumps to remove water, and rewriting its building and zoning codes under a plan to remake 40 percent of city streets within a decade, is not just good, but even exemplary.

“This is the way to do it, for sure,” Ovink says in his slightly accented, staccato English.

Then comes the bad: “It’s not enough.”

“You can never stop; this is not a fix,” Ovink says. “Every step you take is the base for the next step. You can never stop thinking about living with water.”

Assistant city engineer Roger Buell and communications director Tonya Daniels don’t quibble. Gesturing at the new Sunset Harbour infrastructure and the adjacent noisy, dusty project to raise Dade Boulevard as it meets the Venetian Causeway, Buell says all of it buys the Beach 20 years, at most maybe 30 years, before ever higher seas and flooding are likely to overwhelm those defenses.

If Ovink knows whereof he speaks, it’s only in part because as a Dutch water expert he’s got a head start of about, oh, 1,000 years. Before the Dutch government sent him around the world to share his expertise, Ovink worked as the Netherlands’ chief of water management and “spatial planning” and then, for two years, as senior advisor to former President Barack Obama’s Hurricane Sandy recovery task force.

Ovink oversaw the development of six separate, massive projects that, starting later this year, will begin to establish a line of water defenses around lower Manhattan, the Bronx and the shorelines of New Jersey, Long Island and Staten Island, at a cost of $920 million. It’s not stark walls or dikes, though, but an innovative system comprising belts of landscaped parks and public recreational spaces, restored swamplands and even an oyster reef that will blunt and absorb the surging water generated by storms.

The approach, which blends water management with urban planning, is grounded in a millennium of Dutch experience. The history of water control in the Netherlands, a quarter of which sits below sea level, began when medieval farmers banded together to build walls to hold back invading seas. But the science has today evolved well beyond the country’s famous dikes to encompass massive and sophisticated earth and engineering works that, instead of simply trying to keep water out, channel it and tame its impact.

In the Netherlands, Ovink said, the Dutch learned not to fight water, but to live with it. And that’s what South Florida will have to learn to do, in its own way.

“Water is in our culture and in the DNA of the Netherlands,” Ovink told University of Miami architecture students in a lecture Wednesday. “The main difference between the Netherlands and other places where you live on the edge, like South Florida, is that we realized 1,000 years ago that we had to change how we built the country.”

That’s the message Ovink drove home as he met in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and in Naples with public officials, engineers and architecture students and faculties. Surviving rising seas will require not just a concerted, long-term effort from government and urban planners, but a drastic change in culture. Building as usual in South Florida, one of the regions in the world most imperiled by sea level rise, won’t cut it, he said.

“Miami is man-made. Miami is at the edge,” he told the UM audience. “This is a risky place.”

Not all is “doom and gloom” for the region, Ovink stressed. Florida is hardly the only place in the world where the grave peril posed by sea level rise has yet to fully sink in to public consciousness, he said. But it’s also a significant opportunity for South Florida, because the world will be looking to the region to develop what he called “transformative interventions” to deal with the looming crisis.

“If you stand to lose everything, that might drive change,” said Ovink, who for a water expert wields a dry sense of humor. “If we can find a way forward in Miami, it can be an example for the world, though the challenge is huge.”

Ovink, whose visit was sponsored by the Dutch consulate in Miami, brought more than observations and advice. After his Wednesday evening talk, he and UM architecture dean Rodolphe el-Khoury signed an agreement for collaboration with the Netherlands’ Delft University, which has an institute in which architects, engineers, policymakers and experts in governance work on urban water issues, including sea level rise.

He also offered Buell help from Dutch experts on groundwater flow. The Beach has been working to understand the workings of deposits of water beneath the layers of its porous limestone base.

“I think we found a new friend,” Buell said.

Ovink cautioned that what works in the Netherlands or New York may not in South Florida, which is acutely vulnerable to sea level rise because of its porous limestone base — which encompasses several layers of rock and aquifers — its low-lying ground, and a combination of the effect of ocean currents and water temperatures offshore. One study he cited at UM estimates that Miami could lead the world in climate change-driven losses from a surge in extreme weather events by 2050, with $278 billion worth of property at risk.

That, he said, demands new mitigation strategies and creative, collaborative governance — something critics say has been scarce across South Florida. But Ovink said public officials have made some good moves, for instance by creating a three-county coalition to research and address sea level rise, even as Miami, the Beach and Miami-Dade County each have named a chief resilience officer to oversee and coordinate local response efforts. Those positions are funded through 100 Resilient Cities, a $164 million Rockefeller Foundation effort.

While Ovink praised a project that restored coastal mangroves in Broward to buffer the county’s port, he said Miami Beach is clearly leading the way. He endorsed the approach under Mayor Philip Levine of rapidly undertaking urgent improvements — Sunset Harbour came first because it was the city’s most vulnerable neighborhood, Buell said — while planning long-term for what he termed the “slow-moving emergency” of rising seas.

He cautioned that trying to do too much at once, especially if the citizenry is not yet fully on board with drastic changes, could impose unaffordably high costs, unnecessarily disrupt businesses and neighborhoods and risk a backlash. He agreed with the city administration’s decision to design higher new seawalls to just below the 100-year storm standard as a cost-effective compromise.

The entire Netherlands, by contrast, is protected from a 1,000-year storm, Ovink noted.

“We think we are safe. This is where the world needs to go within the next 100 years,” he said. “But I would always try to find a practical way forward. You don’t put all the burden on the future generation or on the present generation alone. Miami, the new Miami, will not be built in a day.”

Ovink plans to return to Sunset Harbour in the fall to see how the new infrastructure fares during King Tide, the period when tides are highest because the moon is the closest to the earth. The Beach has seen repeated dry-weather street flooding as seawater, propelled by the high tides atop higher sea levels, bubbles up through sewers.

“I think on a very positive note, you’re doing a lot right,” he told Buell and Daniels. “Next to doing these incremental steps for building resiliency, they also have to become the platform to think bigger. The vulnerability is not solved easily. For climate change and sea level rise there are no quick fixes, and it has to stay forever.

“You changed the culture on how Miami Beach lives with water. That’s an essential first step, to acknowledge and embrace that you will be doing this for the rest of your lives, and the lives of your children and grandchildren.”