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A biblical blueprint meets the fire code and the neighbors



DORDRECHT, the Netherlands » If Noah had run into the modern nanny state, or NIMBY, or a few of the other obstacles that Johan Huibers has been facing, the animal kingdom might look a lot different today.

Huibers, 60, the successful owner of a big construction company, has spent the last few years building an ark, identical in size to the one Noah is said in the book of Genesis to have built: 300 cubits in length, or 450 feet; 30 cubits high, or about three stories; and 50 cubits, or 75 feet, wide. The cubit of the Bible, Huibers said, was the distance between finger tips and elbow, or in his case roughly 18 inches.

He is building the ark out of Swedish pine, because some versions of the Bible describe the wood God ordered Noah to use as "resin wood," which Huibers says is pine.

"We should finish by the middle of July," he said, leading a visitor through the ark's cavernous decks, still rich with the smell of fresh pine. "Maybe later."

Unlike Noah, Huibers had to conform to Dutch fire safety standards. To do so, he installed a special anchor that qualifies the 2,970-ton ark as a building, rather than a vessel. Moreover, he will have to paint the ark, inside and out, with three coats of fire-retardant varnish. (Noah covered his ark with pitch, making it waterproof but hardly fire retardant.)

And then there are the neighbors.

"The ship takes away our view," complained Gerrit Kruythoff, 65, who has lived with his wife and family for 42 years in the trim brick row house next to the disused shipyard where Huibers is toiling, with the help of two of his three children and a handful of friends.

"We used to have a view all the way to the river," Kruythoff, a retired employee of the big DuPont chemical works here said. "You could see the ships passing by."

He has not lodged a formal complaint, he said, because his home, with those of several neighbors, will soon be torn down anyway, to make way for a new residential development on the site of the former shipyard where the unfinished ark stands.

Actually, this ark is not the first that Huibers has built. He first began dreaming of an ark in 1992, shortly after a heavy storm lashed the coastal region north of Amsterdam where he lives. His wife, Bianca, a police officer, opposed the idea.

"She said no, but by 2004 I had built a smaller ark, 225 feet long, to sail through the Dutch canals," he said. It became a minor sensation. He charged adult visitors $7 to board it.

"More than 600,000 people came, in about three years," he said. He said he made about $3.5 million, enough to clear a profit of $1.2 million.

But it was not about money. "It is to tell people that there is a Bible," Huibers, a spry man with a quick sense of humor said. "And that, when you open it, there is a God."

"It's a simple meaning," he said. "A lot of things in the boat lead you to think. We make people curious."

When it is finished, the ark will be a kind of teaching tool. Panoramas will tell the story of Noah; live animals will bring the pageant to life. (At the moment, only birds in cages and hens and roosters live on board.) Two conference rooms will seat a total of 1,500 people.

Not all of Huibers' neighbors object. "It's beautiful inside and out, the stairways, the doors," gushed Annie van der Luytgaarden, who regularly walks her dog Spikey in the shadow of the ark. "I've already asked if I can join on the maiden voyage," van der Luytgaarden said, cracking a smile. "I'll do the dishes."

Others, however, wondered how seaworthy it was. "It's not very nautical; it's top heavy," said Bas Keyzer, 46, sipping a beer in Linda van Kooten's Upside-Down Cafe. "But it certainly looks like the ark."

In some sense, Dordrecht, a quaint city of red brick buildings with a population of about 118,000 at the confluence of three rivers, is the ideal place for an ark. The city has been swept by floods numerous times, including the devastating St. Elizabeth's floods of 1421, and most recently in 1995.

Now, Dutch cities like Dordrecht face even higher water levels as global warming lifts the level of the sea. In recent years ambitious measures have been taken to cope. A vast area of farmland to the east and south of Dordrecht — known as the Biesbosch, or Forest of Bulrushes — has been given back to the water. Now, when river waters around the city rise, former farmlands are flooded.

"It's called the room for the river project," said Piet Sleeking, 60, Dordrecht's first alderman. "Instead of building the dikes higher, we are giving the rivers and canals more room."

But if city officials do not see the ark as a refuge from rising waters, they do see it bringing salvation another way. Unemployment, Sleeking said, was "still a problem, it's higher than the rest of the Netherlands." Townspeople, he said, warming to the topic, "see the ark as an opportunity, in relation to the town." He added, "There could be hundreds of thousands of tourists, so for the city it would be a good thing."

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