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Czech Republic: Swollen Vltava River Crests In Prague; City Begins To Assess Damages

By Jolyon Naegele/Pavel Boutorine

At least nine people have died in the Czech Republic from record flooding caused by a week of heavy rain. In the Czech capital, Prague, large portions of the city have been evacuated, electricity has been cut in areas, and parts of the city's subway system have been flooded. But relief is in sight. Authorities say the water has finally crested.

Prague, 14 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The swollen Vltava River flowing through the Czech capital, Prague, finally crested this afternoon and is expected to begin receding within hours.

At least nine people are confirmed dead in the Czech Republic due to what is now being described as the worst flooding in 200 years, far worse in volume of water -- if not in destruction and deaths -- to the flood of 1890. That flood destroyed several sections of the 14th-century Charles Bridge and laid waste to extensive stretches of the city's historic center.

The river is now nearly seven meters above its usual level, with a volume of water some 40 times greater than normal. But the water flow is now so fast and high that it can no longer be measured.

Emergency sirens blared as thousands more residents from low-lying neighborhoods in the central districts of Old Town, the old Jewish quarter Josefov, Holesovice, and Smichov were forced to evacuate. The floods have forced some 50,000 Prague residents and tens of thousands of others throughout the Czech Republic to leave their homes. Some Prague streets are accessible only by boat.

Numerous people of all ages could be seen early this morning with backpacks and suitcases waiting for trams and buses to take them out of flooded areas. Meanwhile, designated school buildings filled up with evacuees, most of them elderly and many of them confused about what would happen next, as pensioner Jiri Kovac noted. "We are just waiting for the water [to go down]. We have been moved here. We are from Old Town. Look at the age of the people. They are mostly people in their 60s and 70s here. We are waiting for the authorities to tell us how much longer we will have to stay here, but we don't know anything at the moment," Kovac said.

Another pensioner was satisfied with her treatment but had no idea, after some six hours of waiting in a school building, where she would eventually be placed. "I have been here since this morning. At 6 a.m., there was an announcement that we should leave our houses. I live on Revolucni Street, and I still don't know what is going to happen next. Here they are taking care of us. We are given soup and tea and so on. So everything is fine. We just don't know what's going to happen."

Some Prague neighborhoods that have not been evacuated have been without power for more than 24 hours now, meaning that people are unable to follow 24-hour live news reports on public television and have had to rely on battery-operated radios.

Overnight and this morning, public television and radio have repeatedly broadcast inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading information about public transportation and the level of the flood waters. In one instance, reports said the Legion Bridge had been flooded, when in fact the bridge's roadway was still two meters above the river and trams were still passing across.

Information also was not broadcast for many hours that while there was no metro service across the river, trams had been running over three of the city's bridges.

Damage to the Prague metro system is already estimated to be in the millions of dollars. Some subway stations in the city center are completely flooded.

Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, in office only since last month, suggested today that the authorities can take much of the credit for the relatively low death toll. "If a real catastrophe cannot be avoided, then competent people are able to act reasonably and decently, and the impact is a bit less. Few people realize just how little the loss of life and how few injured people there have been. No one can understand what that means. What it means is that decisions were made in time on evacuations," Spidla said.

In Prague, buildings along the Vltava, including the first floor of the Bedrich Smetana Museum and a new modern-art museum and the government's Liechtenstein Palace, are all under water. The raging waters have all but drowned a riverside statue of Smetana, best known for having composed a symphonic tone poem about the Vltava (Moldau), Bohemia's greatest river.

A few blocks away, water is seeping through the foundations of the National Theater and filling up the basement, threatening props and sets. Firemen are struggling to pump the water out faster than it seeps in.

Just upstream in Podoli, flood water has begun filling up the Prague water-works facility. A few kilometers downstream at Rez, flood waters are lapping at the top of the barrier protecting an experimental atomic reactor at the Institute for Nuclear Physics. The head of the state office for nuclear security, Dana Drabova, insists all measures have been taken to prevent radiation and chemical contamination at the facility.

As of midday, the river was threatening to spill over a steel flood barrier protecting the perimeter of Prague's Old Town. Prague Mayor Igor Nemec said the flood barrier has reached its limit.

But Pavel Uher of the Vltava River Authority told reporters today that even if the water spills over the steel flood barriers, the barriers should hold. "I'm convinced the system [of barriers] will not be threatened because they have to hold. The flow of water [over the barrier] won't be so dramatic as to prevent rescue units from moving about and conducting evacuation and rescue work," Uher said.

Downstream from Prague, flooding has forced the evacuation of thousands of residents from Kralupy, Neratovice, Melnik, Terezin, and some 20 villages around Litomerice and Usti nad Labem.

In the German state of Saxony, six people are reported dead and nearly 100 injured by the flooding, which now has undermined homes in Grimma and Eilenburg near Dresden, threatening their collapse. In Bavaria, flood levels on the Danube in Passau began to drop today after two days of flooding in the historic center.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is offering federal coordination and assistance. "This is certainly an emergency of a dimension that requires national attention. We all know that the [German] states are responsible for the protection against catastrophes, but this really exceptional situation caused by the flood catastrophe requires national action," Schroeder said.

In Austria, the worst flooding in a century is now receding, according to emergency services in the provinces of Upper and Lower Austria. However, the Danube remains at far higher levels than normal, particularly in the scenic Wachau Gorge, where it is nearly 11 meters above normal.

Vienna was spared flooding despite high water, thanks to a massive civil-engineering project in the 1970s and 1980s that created a flood channel for the Danube.