ROTTERDAM, Netherlands, Sept. 17, 2005 — -- Half of the Netherlands sits below sea level, so the tragedy in New Orleans hits home with the Dutch.
They have been through it themselves: In 1953, a huge flood in the Netherlands killed nearly 2,000 people and left 70,000 homeless.
Wim Schot, 78, saved more than 300 lives with his rowboat, seven people at a time.
"I rowed for a week," Schot said.
When he saw the news from New Orleans, he said, his arms literally started pumping.
"In his mind, he was saving the people, yes," said his wife, Inneke.
The flood led to dramatic changes. The Netherlands spent $8 billion over 30 years fortifying the coastline with a sophisticated system of dikes, dams and levees.
Dutch law now requires that coastal defenses protect against the worst storm imaginable.
Ted Sluiter, a spokesman for Waterland Neeltje Jans, a recreational park and information center set up at the base of a major dam, said the hydraulic sea wall that is considered the crown jewel of the system would protect the country against all but a biblical flood. The dam is constructed in a way that protects the region's wetlands, environmentally-sensitive areas that serve as natural storm buffers.
"Without those, Holland will just disappear," Sluiter said. "So, it has to be a Dutch discipline, hydraulic engineering."
The hydraulic sea wall is 130 feet high and nearly six miles long. It's basically a giant steel curtain that can be opened or closed, depending on the water level. One dam alone took more than a decade to build.
Down the North Sea coast, there's a giant door that can seal off shipping lanes in an emergency. Each arm is as long as the Eiffel Tower and twice as heavy. A computer is programmed to close the door as soon as the water rises 6 feet.
The Dutch system is at least 50 times stronger than the coastal defenses surrounding New Orleans.
"To the Dutch standards, New Orleans was not very well-protected," said Huib de Vriend, director of Delta Hydraulics, a company that puts together the heavy machinery involved in some of the flood-control projects.
But Dutch engineers admit it took the disaster of 1953 to focus their country's attention. Perhaps, they say, Katrina will be America's wake-up call.
"You can turn this flooding into something positive, [so] that people will now be willing to spend the money that is needed to prevent this next time," de Vriend said.
In Holland's experience, it will cost a fortune, but it's a bargain compared to the cost of another flood.
ABC News' David Wright originally reported this story for "World News Tonight" on Sept. 11, 2005.