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Nena Vandebroek ’06

Reflecting on Harley

We asked Nena Vandebroek ‘06 to look back on her time at Harley and share her thoughts in response to our questions.

How does Harley impact your work and outlook today?

“I think the small class sizes and ample opportunities for 1:1 time with teachers really helped me get the most out of my education. I can’t tell you how many mornings I spent in Mrs. [Cindy] Richards (Science, 2000 to 2009), Mr. Soanes (P ’86, ’87, GP ’11, ’13, ’17, ’27, Science, 1971 to 2011), and Mr. Thorley’s (Science, 1995 to 2011) classrooms before homeroom, asking way-too-many questions while trying to prepare for the AP Bio/Chem/Physics exams. This allowed me to start my freshman year in engineering at Cornell with a strong foundation in the sciences. I’ve also noticed that I generally have an easier time with writing tasks at work, compared to other engineering colleagues, much of which I attribute to the strong emphasis on writing at Harley. 

If I hadn’t gone to Harley, I doubt I ever would have joined a sports team, but I really enjoyed my time on HAC softball, tennis, soccer, and cross country teams there. Finally, and maybe most significantly, the hospice program and the opportunity to volunteer in India with Mr. Kane (English and Hospice, 2003 to 2013) had a profound and lasting impact on me.”

Did it influence your choice of a career?

While I think I would have ended up in a technical field regardless, I do think attending Harley gave me the confidence and foundation to have a smooth transition to engineering at Cornell.

What are some of your favorite memories of the faculty?

There are a lot to choose from over the eight years I was at Harley! Counting crayfish in the creek with Mrs. Woods (aka Mayshark, Long, Mathematics, 1987 to 2012). Learning how to type (and secretly playing games in a separate window) with Mrs. [Sam] Olivier (Technology, 1994 to 2012) Debating the Three Gorges Dam with Mr. [Doug] Gilbert ’87 (P ’21, ’24, ’27, Middle School History, 1999 to present). Learning Greek with Mr. [Len] Wilcox (P ’01, ’03, Computer Science, College Counseling, Mathematics, 1969 to 1982, 1986 to 2020). Asking Mrs. Richards to please explain photosynthesis and respiration one more time! Calling [James Aldrich-Moodie] JAM (English, 1998 to 2003 and Mathematics, 2003 to present) during my freshman Calculus course at Cornell to ask for help. And learning how to meditate as part of the Hospice program with Mr. Kane.

Nena has been living in the Netherlands since 2017, and working for Deltares, one of the main water research/consulting institutes in the country.

Nena Vandebroek ’06, coastal engineer

Leveraging Knowledge to Help Communities Adapt

Nena’s job addresses climate change adaptation, coastal zone management, and coastal flood forecasting.

Harley Alumna Nena Vandebroek ‘06 has been living in the Netherlands since 2017 and working for Deltares, one of the main water research/consulting institutes in the country. Her job addresses climate change adaptation, coastal zone management, and coastal flood forecasting.

As a coastal engineer since 2011, Nena’s work has focused on coastal flooding, erosion, and the hazards expected with sea level rise. Governments around the world are increasingly taking sea level rise into account in their long term planning process. They want to know what measures they can take, when to take them, and how much they will cost. Her role is to develop maps of where hazards are likely to occur, translate these into impact (e.g. how many people or assets are affected) and risk, and then design adaptation measures. 

She shares, “The first thing people often think of is to build a structure (e.g. a seawall). However, I analyze more sustainable measures like beach/dune/wetland restoration, managed retreat, changes to land use policies, and early warning systems. We use the concept of “Adaptation Pathways” to present various storylines of measures you could take through time, and the associated costs and implications. You could, for example, build an expensive seawall now, but the community still might have to relocate in 50 years.” 

We ask communities, “What might an alternative storyline look like if we start adapting and relocating infrastructure or restoring protective habitats now? Or retrofitting existing infrastructure so it’s okay if it occasionally floods. Or some combination of the above? This helps stakeholders to think broadly about potential solutions.”

Most of Nena’s projects have a stakeholder-engagement component, where input is collected and interim results are presented throughout the project. In the past this was always done on site. During a project for São Tomé and Príncipe, an African island nation,  her team visited eight small coastal communities to interview the residents, understand how flooding affects them, collect data, and conduct participatory risk mapping. This part of the process takes place via Zoom at the moment.

Traditionally, the findings are documented in reports, but this is changing rapidly. More and more often, data are delivered through websites with interactive maps, datasets, and story maps. Here is a story map example from a recent project: Adapting to rising sea levels in Marshall Islands.

These projects are normally initiated by the government, though they may be funded by a different agency, like the World Bank; and there are usually competing interests at play. Normally the government agency has projects in mind they would like to implement, but these are not always in line with what the funding agencies want to support. Not all governments are equally active in involving/representing vulnerable populations in the decision-making process. All too often the emphasis is on a simple cost-benefit analysis, in which costs and benefits to vulnerable populations and the environment are often omitted or greatly underestimated.

“The scale of the problems we’re facing with climate change is so great, that it’s hard to know where to start and what to prioritize. It won’t be possible to protect everything from sea level rise, for example. There will be a lot of hard decisions to make. Not making a decision is also a decision,” said Nena. “Political will tends to be the greatest immediately after a big flood or storm event, but this wanes quickly as time passes. The timescales required for climate adaptation, and to see the benefits of actions that are taken, are much greater than typical political cycles. I do see there is more and more attention and funding being directed towards these issues, at least at the global level.”

“If we are proactive, we can lessen the impact on people who will be most affected. For example, I’m working on a project for the Marshall Islands, a low-lying island country in the Pacific, which is facing an existential crisis: How much time would building coastal protection structures buy them? Which islands can they protect, and which will they have to abandon? How much will all this cost? How can they keep their vibrant culture alive if everyone has to migrate to another country? This tiny island nation did not cause climate change, but they are one of the first places that will be dramatically changed by it. Taking proactive measures could improve the likelihood this upcoming transition is done in a way that respects the culture and people affected.”

Showing one of the local fishermen in São Tomé and Príncipe how to use the GPS to collect elevation data, which are essential for accurate flood mapping.

We used a drone to collect images and produce an elevation map of each site. December 2018

Coastal Flooding Forecasting

At Deltares, Nena’s been involved in setting up Flood Forecasting and Early Warning Systems. Flood forecasting looks at what’s going to happen in the coming week, instead of the longer view of other work. These systems are typically used by forecasting teams at government agencies (often the meteorological service) to understand when and where flooding may occur, and to issue warnings so people have time to prepare and evacuate if needed. The software runs models on a regular schedule (i.e. every six hours) to calculate water levels along rivers and coasts, and translate these data into graphics/summaries that are used for making decisions. The U.S. National Weather Service, most Canadian provinces, Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands use this software as the technical core of their flood forecasting systems. Systems are also in use in Mozambique, Mauritius, the UAE, and South Africa.

Most commonly, flood forecasts are generated using several models. For example, one model translates rainfall predictions into river flows, another model calculates tide and storm surge along the coast, a third model estimates wave heights, and a fourth ties all of these together to map flood extent and depth. There might also be a model to estimate the number of people or value of assets affected by the flood. The exact model usually depends on what a client already uses; the flood forecasting framework can work with nearly any type of hydrologic model. For projects in developing countries, Deltares uses freely-available global data and free/open-source modeling software, to avoid creating long-term licensing costs.

Most forecasting systems focus on accurately predicting where flooding will occur. However, a flood is less of a problem if no one lives in the area affected. Users are therefore increasingly interested in “impact forecasting” to predict in real-time the number of people that might be affected, damages to buildings or critical infrastructure, roads or rail lines that could flood, and potential cascading effects. An example of a cascading effect would be a power station flooding, which shuts off power to surrounding areas, so the hospital loses power and patients can’t be treated. These effects are complex and far-reaching, and require an intricate understanding of the study area and dependencies. Nena’s team is working on several pilot projects to develop these more sophisticated types of forecasting tools.

Accurate forecasting, combined with early and effective communication of warnings, can significantly reduce the impact of storms and flooding. Accurate warnings are essential for gaining trust of communities at risk. If too many warnings are sent that are not followed by a real hazard, then people will stop trusting and responding to them.

Timely warnings allow people to protect their belongings and evacuate, and government agencies/NGOs to implement mitigation measures. The team sets up a storm surge forecasting system for Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, to provide more accurate water level forecasts and to help the government make more informed decisions about when to evacuate residents of low-lying Agalega island, which lies 600 miles north of the capital island. Evacuation is done by boat and takes three days, so the decision must be made well in advance of a tropical cyclone arriving! There are major differences between developed and developing countries in terms of their flood forecasting infrastructure, and their ability to get warnings to the people who need them. In the Netherlands there is a well-established warning system that uses text messaging and loud speakers, which works because most people have cell phones. In other countries, the TV news and radio are often the main way to reach people, but many people don’t receive the warnings in time. A technique that works in one place won’t necessarily work in another place. In Mozambique, after cyclone Idai and Kenneth had a devastating impact on fishing communities a pilot project to send bulletins containing simplified storm surge and wave forecasts via the Telegram app to representatives in remote fishing communities was conducted. The bulletins were designed with input from the end users, to make sure the information was clear and actionable. It’s also very common to encounter challenges due to internet speed/reliability, power outages, and IT capacity at meteorological institutes in developing countries. These systems have to be built more simply and robustly with these issues in mind.

Even though it can sometimes be stressful, Nena enjoys working closely with end users of forecasting systems. “They often contact us when a storm is approaching, and then it’s all-hands-on-deck to make sure the forecasts are being generated smoothly and that any issues are addressed quickly. For example, at one point recently, it was raining heavily in eastern Australia where we are developing a new flood forecasting system, and there were a
lot of requests to access the preliminary results. That’s hectic since we’re still in the testing phase, but also exciting because it means this information is really needed!”

Nena closes with a personal anecdote, “When I was in São Tomé and Príncipe to collect data for a climate adaptation study, we visited a small fishing village. The fishermen go out in the morning in wooden canoes, and when they return, the women take the fish and prepare them for the market. I asked the fisherman who helped me with the data collection if I could go for a paddle in his canoe (I’m an avid kayaker/canoeist). He looked amused and led me to the beach, where he asked several nearby men to push the heavy canoe into the water. He handed me his heavy wooden paddle, and off we went! I solo-paddled the canoe around the small bay, and by the time we returned, the entire village was on the beach—they had never seen a lady paddling a canoe on her own before.”

Installing a coastal forecasting system and training the local meteorologists at the Mozambique National Meteorological Institute in Maputo (Sep 2019 and Jan 2020).

Living in “Low Countries”—an Insider Look

Nena Vandebroek ‘06 is our only alum currently living in the Netherlands, so we picked her brain about life in that part of the world. Enjoy the interview.

How did you come to live in the Netherlands?

I moved to Delft, a small, historic city roughly one hour by train from Amsterdam, in 2014. After enjoying my job as a coastal engineer in San Francisco for three years, I was looking for opportunities to move to Europe to be closer to my extended family in Belgium. In collaboration with a professor at Delft University of Technology, I applied for and was granted a US Fulbright Fellowship to do research on flood management for nine months. 

As part of this research, I looked at how we can use high resolution satellite imagery to automatically map shoreline erosion at high temporal (time between satellite image capture) and spatial resolution (size of the smallest feature detected by a satellite sensor). Then, after a short stint in Belgium to regain my Belgian citizenship (long story!), I returned to the Netherlands and started working for Deltares, an applied water research institute. In 2019, I bought an apartment in Rotterdam together with my Dutch partner, Henk Jan, and expect to stay here for a while. At least until we decide to move to higher ground.

How does the high population density impact day-to-day life?

The Netherlands is really great at urban/land use planning. Even though some areas are  densely-developed, you can usually walk or bike to a high quality green/open space within a few minutes. At the same time, you can walk or bike to pretty much any place you need to be regularly, and take a train or bus everywhere else. There are, of course, downsides: homes are smaller, owning a car is much more expensive than in the US, and sometimes I miss the really wide open spaces, like those you see when driving through the Finger Lakes. It’s a great/easy place to live, but I do use my vacation days to spend time outdoors in less populated areas.

Is it a consensus-building society? How does this impact life/work?

Yes, in my experience this is the case. The Netherlands is less hierarchical than the US. For example, there is much less emphasis on “climbing the ladder,” and junior-level colleagues are strongly encouraged to participate in discussions and decision-making. This also means that decisions can take longer, because everyone gets to weigh in. The Dutch like to explain this from a historical context. Much of the Netherlands is built on land that was “reclaimed” from the sea over hundreds of years by building levees/dykes and pumping out the water. Everyone living within the same dyke ring had to work together to build/raise/maintain it, since it’s only as strong as its weakest point, and if it fails, every house will flood. There are also something like 20 political parties represented in government, so if they want to get anything done, they have to negotiate, form coalitions, and take into account the objectives of many different parties.

What about sustainability?

I think it’s easier for individuals to have a more sustainable footprint here in the Netherlands. I haven’t owned a car since moving here, and my company incentivises biking to work over driving. My apartment is smaller and more insulated than places I lived in the US. There are a lot of options available for vegetarians/vegans, though I think this has also improved a lot in the US since I moved in 2014. Next to the neighborhood garbage bin are various recycling and compost bins. It’s possible to travel to most places in Europe by high-speed train, though many people still take cheap vacation flights. There are also a lot of financial incentives and requirements in place for industry, though it continues to be a work in progress. 

Sustainability is always in the news, whether about the energy transition (the Netherlands wants to completely eliminate the use of natural gas by 2050), activist shareholder campaigns, or the farm industry protesting increasingly strict requirements to reduce nitrogen pollution. For example, the Netherlands has recently been falling behind in its Paris Agreement goals, so the speed limits on all the highways were reduced from 120 to 100 kph. This option was chosen over halting construction of new residences, which is another major producer of greenhouse gasses. I also heard recently that by 2030 all new cars should be electric.

Research says the children there are among the happiest in the world? Why?

I don’t have kids, so I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this question, but I’ll give it a try. I have noticed that kids are given a lot more freedom than in the US—it’s really normal to see young kids biking themselves to school or hanging out with friends outside, far from home. They are under much less pressure during high school, as any student can attend any university in the country (with a few exceptions, but then it’s a lottery), as long as they pass their classes. Though it’s gradually changing, most students graduate college/university with little-to-no debt. It probably also helps that their parents generally work less than 40 hours per week, and also have lots of time off (vacation) to spend with them. Essentially all of my colleagues who are parents, and many who aren’t (including myself) work four days a week; this is often still considered “full time.”

What else should we know about the Netherlands?

Water is a big part of life here, so I’ll share a few water-related facts:

      • Two thirds of the country is at or near sea level, including most of the largest cities. When I moved to the Netherlands, I swore I wouldn’t buy property below sea level (so I bought an apartment on the 3rd floor).
      • Everyone in the Netherlands pays a special/dedicated tax to the water boards, which are regional government agencies responsible for managing surface water. They make sure to maintain water levels within an agreed range, maintain water quality, and manage locks, pumps, and other infrastructure in their region. 
      • A common excuse for showing up late is, “The bridge [to cross the canal] was up.”
      • Even though there’s so much water, droughts can cause major issues, since the entire country is designed to get water out as quickly as possible, and there is not a lot of storage. A major drought in 2018 also led to dikes drying/cracking; at various places you could see construction workers spraying the dikes to keep them wet and stable.
      • There is no such thing as flood insurance in the Netherlands, and the government law, which provides compensation in case of a disaster, specifically excludes flooding caused by a failure in the flood defense system, because the damages would be so vast. Instead, flood defenses are designed to very high standards (1:10,000 year event for the most developed areas, compared to 1:100 year event as is standard for US flood defenses).

If any Harley alums come to the Netherlands, I’d be happy to provide tourism tips!