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Central Europe: Floods Ravage Region; Czech Capital Under State Of Emergency

The worst flooding in 100 years is inundating the cities of Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Passau, and Dresden, as well as numerous other Central European towns and villages. At least 13 deaths are being blamed on the rising waters.

Prague, 13 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A week of heavy rainfall has flooded cities, destroyed property, and killed at least 13 people through the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, and other parts of Central Europe. In many areas, hydropower authorities have been forced to open reservoir floodgates to free up capacity for further inflow.

In the Czech Republic, Bohemia's chief river, the Vltava, has overflowed its banks along much of its length, flooding the medieval towns of Cesky Krumlov and Ceske Budejovice. The Vltava, which divides the Czech capital, now threatens to flood some 500 streets in low-lying neighborhoods of Prague, where authorities have ordered the evacuation of some 40,000 city residents.

The Vltava is expected to reach a flow of nearly 4,500 cubic meters of water per second this evening, which would rank this flood with the catastrophic flood of 1890, in which several sections of the 14th-century Charles Bridge were swept away. The average river flow in Prague is just 143 cubic meters per second.

So far, eight people have lost their lives and two are missing and feared dead in the Czech floods. Another four have been killed in flooding in neighboring Austria, and two deaths and nine missing are reported in the German state of Saxony.

Last night, Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla declared a state of emergency in Prague and other affected regions of Bohemia. "The [Czech] government has declared a state of emergency. This means that sufficient rescue staff are available, which I think is a great help. Then the damages will be analyzed and the so-called 'crisis law' will be applied."

A large stretch of the Smetana embankment along the Old Town side of the Vltava River in Prague has been fitted for the first time with special steel panels to act as a flood barrier.

Prague Mayor Igor Nemec urged residents to evacuate their homes before it was too late, while expressing hope that the flood panels would prove their worth. "This wall will for the first time be tested under major stress. It has never been tested before, and this will probably be its last test in our lifetime."

Just hours after the mayor made that statement, however, officials warned that the river would probably go over the flood wall and inundate a large part of the Old Town, including the historic Jewish quarter, Josefov. Access to most bridges across the river is expected to be restricted. Some have already been closed. Banks and shops also had to close after the electricity supply was shut off. Authorities in the Czech capital have announced that public transportation is free in a bid to persuade people to leave the city center. Civil defense sirens blared throughout the day in the city.

The municipal authorities say they have no plans to shut the Prague metro, which within hours is likely to be the only way for people to cross the river. Nevertheless, several subway stations in flood-prone areas have been closed. The Prague metro currently operates three tunnels under the Vltava.

The Czech government today abandoned its riverside headquarters and held a cabinet session in a small palace on a hill behind Prague Castle.

Spidla told reporters after the extraordinary cabinet meeting that the equivalent of nearly $50 million will be made available for flood assistance. "380 million [crowns] ($12 million) are immediately available. They are being released as required. The Budget Committee will meet on Friday (16 August) and will release an additional 1.15 billion [crowns]. So financing of all things will be possible as needed and without any hesitation."

Spidla says it will take two weeks to assess the damage once the flood waters recede.

The Czech floods are being seen as a major test for the prime minister and Prague mayor, both of whom took office only last month. Mayor Nemec had been assuring residents yesterday that this would only be the worst flood in some 20 years. Today he says that he had been poorly advised.

Prague authorities closed the Charles Bridge, a top tourist attraction, to pedestrians this morning to enable rescue vehicles to remove any large objects in the river that might lodge against the ancient stone bridge and threaten its integrity.

A floating restaurant boat just upstream is threatening to come loose from its moorings, and workers have been bringing in steel cables to secure the craft. The mayor has threatened to destroy the boat if it threatens to break loose and damage the Charles Bridge.

Librarians have been moving the valuable collections of Charles University's Clementinum library to higher floors, and gallery workers at a new museum of Czech modern art on Kampa Island next to the Vltava have been moving the collection to higher ground as the river has begun to flood lower parts of the gallery.

Numerous animals have been evacuated from the Prague zoo, as have horses from the city's racetrack at Velka Chuchle, which is now under two meters of water.

At Wallenstein Palace, the seat of the upper house of the Czech parliament, the Senate, workers rescued archives from the palace basement.

There has been relatively little organized effort at sandbagging in Prague. Many homeowners or business owners wishing to protect their property have had to track down sand and bags on their own.

Nevertheless, some 300 soldiers have been assigned in Prague for sandbagging work, and some 900 other soldiers have been deployed in the capital and elsewhere to assist in rescue and evacuation efforts.

The European Commission today indicated it is studying the possibility of granting extraordinary assistance to the Czech Republic.

In Germany, the flooding has isolated numerous communities in the eastern part of the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge), which are now without power or telephone connections. The waters of the Elbe have overflowed their banks in Dresden and nearby Meissen, flooding several neighborhoods. After water broke through into railway power lines, rail authorities in Dresden cut all power, suspending rail service to the city's main station. A hospital in Dresden has also been evacuated, and a state of emergency has been declared in the city.

Flood waters from the confluence of three rivers -- the Danube, the Ilz, and the Inn -- have flooded large parts of the old city of Passau in the worst flooding there since 1954.

The German government today announced a special loan program totaling 100 million euros for the victims of the floods in Germany, noting that many households are not insured for flooding.

Across the border in Austria, several towns have had to be evacuated due to the threat of flooding. Large parts of Steyr, Ybbs, Melk, Zwettl, and other towns near the Czech border are under water. Some 48 people were rescued from their cars last night when flood waters inundated the autobahn near Linz last night.

Just west of Linz, a 50-square-kilometer lake has formed where there were only fields a few days ago.

And in the town of Ybbs, Mayor Anton Sirlinger said, "The town is sinking into the Danube -- we must assume the worst."

Downstream in Slovakia, the level of the Danube is far above normal and rising. Its tributary, the Hron, in central Slovakia is threatening the regional capital, Banska Bystrica, and several villages upstream.