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Czech Republic: Olomouc Faces Flood Aftermath

Olomouc, Czech Republic; 17 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Ten days after the worst floods in more than a century began sweeping across the eastern third of the Czech Republic, emergency services are beginning to wind down, and the massive job of estimating the losses, cleaning up and re-constructing is beginning.

The crisis-command center of the central flood emergency commission, established when the floods began by the Czech Ministries of Interior, Environment and Defense, is also being dismantled. The Government yesterday delegated matters concerning the aftermath of the flood to a special government commissioner, Environment Minister Jiri Skalicky.

First Deputy Interior Minister Jaroslav Kopriva was dispatched to Olomouc ten days ago to represent the Interior Ministry's interests in helping to deal with the flood on the central flood emergency commission. The commission offices at Olomouc were flooded twice, and were finally set up on higher ground at a former Soviet airbase on the edge of town.

Kopriva says the flooding went beyond all presumptions made until now made by hydraulogists about the movement of water on the Morava River and its tributaries.

Kopriva says, "The complication that confronted us the entire time here in the crisis center was the unpredictability of the behavior of nature, which all sorts of plans and commissions on preparedness had been supposed to solve." He said the flooding in northern Moravia, the area between Olomouc and the border with Poland, was characterized by how quickly the area flooded, and what he called the floodwater's "aggression," as it knocked down anything in its path.

In contrast, from Olomouc southward to the Austrian and Slovakia borders, Kopriva says, the flooding was slower, as water spread out through fields and surrounding lowlands, confounding previous predictions. Kopriva says contrasting what was expected with what occurred perhaps had a worse psychological effect on the local population, which waited for five days or longer before the water finally reached them - compared to Uherske Hradiste, where the flooding was swift, and the water took days to recede.

The predictions for each area was the opposite of what occurred.

The flooding has had a positive side, according to Kopriva, who noted that crime dropped by 14 percent in northern Moravia, since the floods began July 6, thanks in large part, he says, to extra police patrols and the use of soldiers to assist the police.

Kopriva says something has been missing from Czech media reporting of the flooding, by placing heavy emphasis on the rising death toll - now, approaching 50 people - and giving little attention to the rescuers, police, soldiers and firemen, who helped protect the lives of hundreds-of-thousands of Czech residents of flooded communities. He says the time has come to thank these people, because, in his words, what they did was probably the greatest thing they had ever done in their lives.

Kopriva says, "It was simply a battle that will not repeat itself here. They put their lives on the line. For that, they're true heroes, regardless of whether people start cursing the authorities in a couple of weeks, after the flooding." As Kopriva put it, "Regardless of bad legislation, technical problems, inadequate communications, these people did something that has never been accomplished before in this country."

If there's a lesson to be learned, First Deputy Interior Minister Kopriva says, it is that better communication at all levels, and improved legislation to define the authority of public officials in an emergency are needed. This, he says, includes an understanding that the mayor of a small town is not capable of solving catastrophic issues. Kopriva says the state should have a more effective way of ensuring that certain things are done to protect people, such as forced evacuations. Another lesson, he says: regardless of all the preparations one makes - no amount of preparation is adequate. But, on the other hand, regardless of how poorly prepared one is, people are capable of making up of for any deficits through their own, personal initiative.