This guest post was originally delivered as a sermon on November 14, 2010, by the Reverend Dennis McCarty at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus, Indiana. We publish it here with his permission. The reading for the sermon is from an Associated Press article published on March 3, 2010, by Remy de la Mauviniere and Elaine Ganley.
To anyone who doesn’t actually live there, I suppose it does look like a recipe for disaster, to live in a city that’s below sea level. But it’s not that simple. For one thing—below sea level or not—this city is a major seaport. It has a population of a half-million people. Because it sits just a few miles upstream from the mouth of the largest river on the continent, it guards a very important waterway.
Even long ago, when people first began to live here, the land was barely above sea level. Centuries of human habitation, land development, and land reclamation have caused it to settle even more. Now, the lowest points of this city are twenty feet or more below sea level. In the past, storms blowing in off the sea, have caused major damage and loss of life. If the sea walls, water gates, and levees were to fail again, the death toll could be enormous. For that reason, I suppose it is natural that someone from an inland state would suggest that the citizens just leave this place to the elements and build somewhere else, on higher ground.
But again, it’s not all that simple. For one thing, there is no ground that’s much higher, not till you get many miles away. For another, more than a million people earn their livelihoods from the commerce, tourism, and manufacturing located in and around the city right where it is. And that’s not even counting the music, museums, educational centers, and festivals. So the people stay. They do the best they can. Oddly enough, they don’t seem worried by a situation we inlanders might see as nerve-wracking.
I’m not talking about New Orleans, though. Welcome to the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which for centuries has been the busiest, most successful seaport in the world. Nor is Rotterdam the only city besides New Orleans that lies below sea level. Twenty percent of the whole Netherlands—and twenty-one percent of the country’s population—live below sea level. Another thirty percent lie three feet or less above sea level. Any mildly healthy North Sea wave, looks down on more than half the country.