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Reflections on Hurricane Idalia, Proud Boys, Resilience, and Climate Change
This summer, I enjoyed the glamour of New York City, the allure of Paris, and the vibrancy of Madrid, so it was a stark contrast to these experiences that an unexpected detour led me to a different corner of the world today.
Colijnsplaat is a name less heard and a destination less trodden for world travelers or those who just live on the next island. The small town with its quaint charm is tucked away in a far corner of the (former) island of Noord-Beveland. Walking its main street is a plunge into a quiet and authentic version of the province of Zeeland, known for its brave and never-ending battle against the sea.
Unlike the high-profile cities I visited recently, Colijnsplaat didn't make grand claims or compete for attention. Instead, it offered a glimpse into the everyday rhythm of local life, where experiences were unadorned by the trappings of tourism. It was as if time had paused here, and I savored the simplicity of a place without metropolitan aspirations. Walking down the main street towards its small church felt like walking into a history book.
Walking that street in the other direction brings me into the heart of the town, where there is a cut-out in the sea dike, like you will find in many harbor towns. A dam protected the village and the land against the sea, but a portal was necessary for horses and carriages to and from the quay. Flood boards could be lowered at extremely high tide to keep out the threatening water, which was a tough job for several burly guys. Today, I could still see the slots where the bars used to be fitted. That will probably never be the case again since a new higher sea dike was placed outside the old harbor in 1979.
During a recent renovation, part of the former seawall was restored. Next to it is a monument commemorating a brave act during the ferocious storm and flooding of 1953 that ravaged the southwest of the Netherlands, taking with it over 1800 lives. Late in the evening of this cold February night, the buttress that kept the seaboards in place threatened to break under the violence of the water. The church bells rang to warn all villagers of imminent disaster, and dozens of men came to help. They stood their ground for many hours, pushing back the relentless waves. And then, a twist of fate, a potato barge, tossed by the maelstrom, landed fortuitously, sealing the breach and saving the village.
This very tale found its way into the pages of a boys' adventure authored by K. Norel in the same year. His prose immortalized the courage, the resilience, and the eventual triumph in the face of nature's wrath. "Stand By, Boys!" was the title of his book, long before "Stand back and stand by" became infamous as President Donald Trump's response when asked if he would denounce white supremacists and militia groups. Even in this serene corner of the quiet province of Zeeland, the thoughts of what is happening in the rest of the world are never far away. On September 5th, you will see breaking news alerts in the early afternoon about the sentencing of Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, for his role in the insurrection. Prosecutors want him sentenced to 33 years in prison. Unlike Tarrio's men, the boys of Colijnplaat honestly had reasons to be proud since they protected the people against an attack by the sea instead of unleashing a wave of fury at the people's house.
In the starkly different world of 1953, the proud story of these men became a narrative that transcended borders, capturing hearts beyond the Netherlands and becoming a beacon of heroism that resonated perhaps even more vividly than the legendary tale of Hansje Brinker's steadfast finger.
In 1993, after a successful fundraising campaign in memory of "the miracle of Colijnsplaat," the flood boards were reconstructed. It turned out that enough money had also been raised to commission an artist to make a matching sculpture. I visited it today, and as much as I appreciated the monument's intent, my affinity clearly lay more with the tale's essence.
It is a story about resilience that transcends generations. We will need heroism and ingenuity as much as more examples of unity that defies adversity. Worldwide, the sea has not given up on its ambitions to conquer the land; rising sea levels in combination with fiercer storms will surely test our capability to adapt, especially in times where we have shown again and again to ignore scientists' warnings to stop feeding more carbon to the climate monster.
I write these words in the summer when we see daily reminders in the news of the devastations caused by the lack of water and the destructive power of too much water. Only minutes ago, I saw more pictures of the destructive power of the powerful hurricane Idalia, fuelled and energized above absurdly warm tropical water, slamming into a U.S. state where the words "climate change" are practically banned from state government publications.
A team of top climate scientists, including Michael E. Mann, published a study in 2023 that measured how much energy is going into the world's oceans. It is an amount of heat equivalent to five to six Hiroshima atom bombs of energy per second. Although we should be grateful to the seas for absorbing more than 90 percent of the Earth's greenhouse-effect warming, there are limits to the amount of our mishandling of this planet they can accept, and the oceans' capability to cushion the atmospheric warming will eventually decrease.
The oceans are warming rapidly; this year, scientists have been stunned by the data from some regions like the North Atlantic and the Gulf region. And this will have consequences because the interaction between warmer oceans and the atmosphere leads to more violent and wetter hurricanes. The rapid development in just half a day of tropical storm Idalia into a dangerous Category 4 hurricane is an example of this development, which climate scientists will likely attribute to climate change later in this season. Give them some time: Science takes longer than blunt climate change denial. Speaking of which, mother nature's fury left its mark on the home of the vocal climate change denier Ron DeSantis by splitting in half a hundred-year-old oak tree that fell on his Florida Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee.
Colijnplaat can be proud of their boys whose collective weight, pushing against the relentless forces of the North Sea, is not just a measure of physics; it's a testament to the human spirit. Above all, it signifies hope that all is not lost once we recognize the existential risks of a threat. We can successfully work together to protect our cities, lands, and our loved ones.
It's also a reminder that history is not solely the domain of politicians or billionaires but can also be shaped by ordinary individuals rising to extraordinary challenges.
So, in the heart of Colijnsplaat, a small town you most likely had never heard of, a legacy thrives about human determination and resilience that will continue to resonate through time.
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