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Central Europe: Floodwaters Receding In Prague, But Danger Rising In Cities Downstream

The death toll from this week's floods currently stands at 11 in the Czech Republic, 10 in Germany, and four in Austria. The flooding has eased in Prague, but downstream in northern Bohemia and the German states of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, floodwaters continue to rise.

Prague, 15 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The floodwaters of the Vltava River finally receded by about two meters today in the Czech capital, Prague, after having come within 10 centimeters of spilling over new flood barriers protecting the city's historic Old Town.

However, Prague authorities are permitting hardly any of the city's estimated 50,000 evacuated residents to return to their homes. Prague Mayor Igor Nemec said the stability of buildings must first be approved by engineers, as well as by gas and electricity inspectors. He said the flood damage in the Czech capital is at least in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Nemec said Prague needs industrial drying machines, generators, water pumps, and the people to operate them. Equipment and personnel have already arrived from Belgium, France, and Greece.

Two four-story apartment houses in the city's Karlin district collapsed at midday today, leaving only the rear walls standing. The buildings had been slated for demolition and were uninhabited, but rescue workers and sniffer dogs are searching the rubble for any possible victims.

The Prague zoo, which fronts the river, suffered tremendous losses, including the deaths of 800 birds and nine mammals. More than 1,000 animals were relocated to higher ground or other zoos, but zoo workers were forced to shoot an Indian elephant, a rhinoceros, a lion, and a bear when they became trapped by floodwaters. A gorilla is missing and presumed drowned. One of several sea lions that escaped has been sighted downstream near Melnik.

Czech Health Minister Marie Souckova said some 200,000 people were evacuated from flooded districts.

In southern Bohemia, the floodwaters are receding and cleanup operations have begun in Cesky Krumlov, Ceske Budejovice, and Pisek, which suffered heavy flooding earlier this week. The oldest bridge in the country, the recently reconstructed stone Judit bridge in Pisek, survived the flood largely intact, although it was totally submerged at the height of the flood. The raging waters of the Otava River, however, did sweep away the bridge's stone balustrades.

Downstream, five unmanned barges broke free of their moorings near Usti nad Labem. Troops rounded up three and sank a fourth, although a bystander was killed by shrapnel.

Czech authorities have been firing on the fifth barge, loaded with 600 tons of beet seed, in a bid to sink it before it floats over the border into Germany.

Chlorine was reported to have been leaking into the air at the flooded Spolana chemical works in Neratovice just north of Prague, setting off alarms in the adjoining village. Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said there are no reports of illness as a result of the leak.

Czech Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik also confirmed that there is no immediate danger from the leaks. "There is no danger at the moment to citizens. It's sufficient for people to close their windows or shut themselves into a closed space," Tvrdik said.

Most of the chemical plant's workers had been evacuated by boat yesterday. However, 12 Ukrainian workers were accidentally left behind inside the chlorine unit until they were rescued after being discovered during a security check.

In Germany, Environment Minister Juergen Trittin expressed concern on a visit to flooded Dresden today about what he said are 250 tons of mercury products stored at Neratovice. He said that if they spill into the floodwaters, they could present an environmental threat to Germany, as well as to the Czech Republic.

In Germany itself, some 20,000 people have been evacuated in Saxony. The Elbe continues to rise, further inundating Dresden, Pirna, and Meissen. In Dresden, the floodwaters have reached the Zwinger palace art collection. The artwork has been moved to higher floors.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder today announced emergency assistance for those affected by the floods. "We have decided to transfer a first tranche of 100 million euros [$98 million], to be distributed in cash tomorrow through the districts and district towns, which have an insight into who is affected and needs emergency assistance," Schroeder said.

Schroeder made the announcement one day after visiting flooded regions, including the town of Grimma near Dresden. "Re-establishing the infrastructure [in Grimma] will basically have to be started from scratch. In the affected regions, all the reconstruction that people achieved [over the last 12 years] according to state and federal guidelines has been destroyed in a single night," Schroeder said.

The Elbe and the Mulde rivers are now threatening to flood communities further downstream, such as Dessau and Bitterfeld, where a dam and a dike have burst, as well as Wittenberg and Magdeburg.

The president of the German Association of Farmers, Gerd Sonnleitner, said in Berlin today that as a result of excessive summer rain and flooding he expects a catastrophic grain harvest, with losses nationwide totaling 1.5 billion euros. He predicts a further 1 billion euros in losses due to damage to fruit, vegetables, and agricultural buildings.

In Austria, Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser is terming the floods there "the worst national catastrophe in the postwar era." The government has already allocated 650 million euros for immediate assistance, ending any chance that the government can keep its promise of a balanced budget. The flood losses also mean that Austria will delay by at least one year plans to purchase 24 new fighter jets, the first payments for which had been scheduled to be made in 2005. Defense Minister Herbert Schreiber said Austria will purchase only 18 Eurofighter jets.

In Slovakia, Bratislava is gearing up for the highest water level on the Danube in 500 years. The riverfront Slovak National Gallery has begun removing its collection of 20th-century art stored in the basement.

Slovak President Rudolf Schuster commented on the flood today in the capital, Bratislava. "It's a sad scene. The water level is still rising," Schuster said.

The Slovak news media is criticizing the government for refusing to adopt flood-prevention measures and is backing a demand by Slovakia's water-resources enterprise to spend some 350 million euros by 2010 on flood prevention. The Danube is expected to crest tomorrow morning at Bratislava at an unprecedented 12,180 cubic meters of water per second.

Still further downstream in Hungary, authorities in Budapest are preparing for record high waters. They have closed streets along the river and are urging motorists not to bring their cars into the city. Budapest has high embankments that can deal with water of up to 10 meters in height. The Danube is expected to crest in Budapest on 18 August at 8.7 meters.

Although some environmental groups such as Greenpeace are depicting the floods as the direct result of global warming, other experts note the Vltava in the Czech Republic was long overdue for a major flood, having last had serious floods in 1890 and 1954.

In contrast to those catastrophes, Prague fared better this year thanks to a system of hydropower dams and reservoirs upstream and high stone embankments and new flood barriers that protected much of the city.

Moreover, as a result of the reservoirs and dams, the river is no longer used to ferry logs in quantity. In the 19th-century floods, those logs caused at least as much damage as the river water, destroying, for example, several sections of the 14th-century Charles Bridge in Prague.

While Vienna had the funds and space available in recent decades to build a massive flood-protection system, Prague had no such luxury. In contrast to the Austrian capital, which is largely on the right bank of the Danube and has a sparsely populated flat plain along the left bank, Prague is surrounded on all sides by hills, and the river goes through its very heart.