Klodzko, Poland; 21 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The damage caused by this month's flooding in southwestern Poland is devastating -- 48 people dead, 365,000 hectares of land inundated, 50 towns and 280 villages flooded by the Odra and Nysa rivers and their tributaries.
In Klodzko, an area surrounded on three sides by mountains forming the border with the Czech Republic, the high water mark of mud left behind by the receding floodwaters is four meters above the sidewalks in some streets between the train station and the old hilltop town.
Poor communications infrastructure and excessive centralization of authority at the regional level appear to be contributing factors to the lack of advance warning of the flood.
But nothing could have prepared the 60,000 residents of Klodzko for the town's worst flood in 500 years, when the Nysa Klodzska, a tributary of the Nysa that flows south from the Czech border, rose seven meters above its normal level.
Jerzy Cieslawski, the municipal secretary of Klodzko, says provincial officials in Walbrzych announced on July 6 that forces were being mobilized to deal with potential floods resulting from heavy water build-up in the mountainous upper reaches of the Nysa river. The following day, the Nysa Klodzska barreled down the mountain valley, felling huge trees, destroying bridges and roads, undermining solid old German homes and water mills.
"The flood wave rolled through Klodzko around midday between 12 and 2 p.m. At the same time, it started to rain heavily," Cieslawski says.
The first flood wave did not cause much damage because it covered terrain that officials predicted would be flooded and had advised the public to evacuate. After 2 p.m., Cieslawski and other officials received meteorological reports that water levels had begun to drop in the upper reaches of the Nysa and in its tributaries.
The situation seemed to be improving. Then at 8 p.m., officials received reports of high water in Bystrzyca and other surrounding villages, giving an idea of what Klodzko might expect. Then the electricity went out. One hour later, the town was "attacked by a flood wave two meters higher than the record flood of 1938," says Cieslawski.
"We did not have time to warn the public -- as a result there were great losses suffered by Klodzko's inhabitants because they were unable to evacuate their belongings to higher ground from houses that were inundated by the river," the municipal secretary says.
Cieslawski said the "most dramatic situation" occurred on Malczeski Street, which lies in a depression at the fork of the Nysa Klodzska and the Mlynowka canal. One elderly resident was killed after he waved away offers of help until it was too late. Cieslawski says the floodwaters were so strong that they swept several heavily-laden trucks off a dike and downstream to a bridge, where they piled up.
Officials and the local news media are reluctant to give an exact figure of the number of dead in the town. Estimates range from three to eight.
The carcasses of livestock from up the valley, whole cottages and parts of large buildings, huge trees, kiosks and trailers came tumbling through the lower part of town "like ice cubes." Some buildings were completely leveled and carried off.
More than 1,500 apartments in Klodzko were flooded; over 7,000 residents of a total population of 32,000 were forced to flee; some 600 families have no home to return to because they were either destroyed or so heavily damaged that they will have to be demolished. More than 200 small private firms -- the backbone of the region's economic transformation -- were wiped out by the flood waters.
Cieslawski says the lesson of the flood is that state services such as meteorological and related services should be in a position to communicate directly with the public at times of danger. He says radio and television must be a part of this effort. One can't rely on anything that is dependent on trunk telephone and electricity lines, which are the first to be knocked out of service in a flood, he concludes.
Cieslawski says anti-flooding measures such as raising and reinforcing river banks must be undertaken at the source of the flooding. The municipal secretary says this must be financed from above since local communities simply don't have the money to finance such public works projects.
Humanitarian aid is pouring in but is almost more than local officials can handle. The Roman Catholic church's aid organization Caritas is taking an unusually low profile role in aid distribution -- largely leaving it up to local officials, who say they are overwhelmed and show signs of exhaustion.
At the sports hall, a small crowd waits in a line for food, clothing and bottled drinking water. Municipal aid officials say some 500 residents have been given special identification cards enabling them to receive assistance which is arriving by the truck load from other parts of Poland.
The town's church was badly hit by the flood. At the Franciscan monastery, flood waters nearly four meters high, 20 centimeters higher than the highest recorded flood in 1783, inundated the cloister and church, sweeping away anything that wasn't firmly bolted down, destroying statues, candelabra, paintings and crosses.
One week after the flood waters receded, the streets in Klodzko's lower town are still coated with a thick layer of mud. Shopkeepers are busy hosing down a few salvageable items that weren't swept away, destroyed or stolen.
"What the flood waters didn't take, thieves did," said one butcher shop employee. Store interiors stores are ruined from having been submerged for three whole days. The walls smell of mold and decay. The streets smell like fish mixed with disinfectant.
At a shop selling an assortment of goods -- bicycles, household chemicals, sports items, leather and metal products -- an employee, Tereza Galaz, says it will be at least another month before the place is sufficiently clean to reopen.
"There is nothing to save. There is no point. There is no money," she says. Virtually everything has been destroyed. Just a few bicycles are still in working order. She and the owner of the business fear that they have lost so much to the flood and thieves that they may well have to declare bankruptcy.