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Czech Republic: A Year Later, Waterlogged Prague All Dried Out

By Askold Krushelnycky and Jana Mesarosova

Last year saw many parts of Central Europe ravaged by floods. One of the worst-affected places was the Czech capital, Prague. On the anniversary today of the flooding, RFE/RL takes a look at how the city is coping one year later.

Prague, 11 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The floods that hit Central Europe last year were caused by an unfortunate combination of weather-related phenomena. The land became so waterlogged the soil could not absorb further downpours.

Hungary, Russia, Austria, Romania, Germany, and the Czech Republic were all affected, with the last two suffering most. More than 100 people perished and damage was estimated at billions of dollars.

As the rains continued, towns and villages on the Vltava River, which bisects Prague, were flooded. A dam upriver from Prague was in danger of bursting because of the swollen flow of water, estimated at many times higher than normal. A decision was made to open it and the flooding of Prague became inevitable.

But few predicted the extent to which the capital would suffer as the rushing waters, carrying an astonishing collection of smashed buildings, vehicles, livestock, and furniture, swept into Prague.

Waters over 10 meters higher than normal flooded over the riverbanks and the feeble defenses of sandbag walls. The Mala Strana part of the city, a favorite tourist destination, was inundated.

Happily, much of the historic core of the city was spared as the swollen river failed to overwhelm new flood defenses in that area. Also undamaged was Prague's most visited site, the Charles Bridge.

More than half the city's metro system, designed to withstand natural disasters and nuclear war, was flooded.

Although the world's media focused on the fate of Prague's architectural jewels, it was the residential districts, seldom seen by visitors, which suffered the most. Around 50,000 people were evacuated from these areas, including the worst hit, the working-class district of Karlin.

Animals as well as people suffered when water rose far higher than expected in the area around the riverside zoo.

Prague Mayor Pavel Bem told RFE/RL the floods that hit the city a year ago today will not be commemorated extravagantly. Instead, he hopes to meet many of the emergency-service personnel and thousands of civilian volunteers who worked tirelessly during the four days before the waters began to recede.

He called them heroes and wants to thank them and tell them about the work that has been done to repair the damage caused by the floods and which, Bem said, cost more than 27 billion crowns ($1 billion). Bem said it cost $250 million alone to restore the metro system, and work is still proceeding in Karlin.

"In total, over 1,000 of both city-owned as well as private buildings and houses were damaged by last year's floods," he said. "Approximately 80 or 85 percent of them have already been repaired so that in most places in the city of Prague you would not, possibly, recognize that there were 12 months ago tremendous, probably the biggest in Prague's history, floods."

Since the fall of communism, Prague has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, with visitors generating 60 percent of the capital's economy.

After the floods, which came at the height of the tourist season, visitors deserted the city, although many of the famous sites were undamaged or were soon repaired. Cafes, restaurants, hotels, and the entertainment industry also quickly recovered, but the TV and newspaper images of the flooding were etched into people's imaginations and visitors stayed away.

Since then the Czech tourist industry has spent a lot of time and money trying to lure back tourists by convincing them most of the popular sites are back to normal and offering discounts for many hotels and hostels. Bem said the efforts have been successful.

"I have good news actually, I have to say that the tourist season is just reaching the top now," he said. "I'm glad to say that tourists came back to our capital. However, the drop in the tourist season last year was amazing and reached approximately 60 percent of the expected number of visitors. The total number of people who stayed a night in the city, which the year before the floods was 8 million, decreased during the last year to 6 million tourist nights -- that means the number of people spending a night in Prague hotels or hostels. However, tourism in Prague has recovered in total and I'm really glad to see that in fact, almost all services for tourists in Prague are operating well these days."

The areas affected by floods are still easily recognized as the damaged plaster on the walls of buildings has been stripped to reveal the bare brick. Cafe owner Martin Kotas, whose business was wrecked by the floods, says it will take several more years for his business to recover to the point it was at before the floods.

One of the most enduring images from the floods was the devastation wrought on the city's zoo. Zoo Director Peter Fejk said, "We lost 135 animals -- from this number were 12 mammals, for example an Indian elephant, two hippos, a young male gorilla, and our sea lion 'Gaston,' our famous animal from the floods."

Gaston escaped into the river and was tracked by the world's TV cameras as he swam more than 150 kilometers into Germany. But despite being pulled eventually from the river, he died of exhaustion. A 35-year-old male elephant, "Kadir," had to be shot because he refused to leave his enclosure and staff did not want him to suffer death by drowning.

Fejk said that the cost of repairs to the zoo, including adding several new pavilions, was $10 million. He said the public has shown great interest in rebuilding the zoo and has donated more than a quarter of that sum. Fejk said visitor numbers are now the same as for last year -- 400,000 so far.

Mayor Bem said the aftermath of the floods brought good things as well as bad. "Still there is a lot of pain among Prague's citizens, especially those who suffered from last year's floods," he said. "On the other hand, I would say it's a sort of a mirror of events which happened during the 19th century in 1844 and 1890, which generated amazing potential for urban development in the historical center of Prague. In fact if you walk along the Prague riverside in the historic center, you just see the outcome of urban development and reconstruction after the floods of 1844 and 1890."

He anticipates similar big changes in the years to come, including new flood defenses by 2006 and plans for shopping malls, a river port, and new housing.

Fejk said the zoo received a happy surprise last month when Gaston's mate, Bara, gave birth to a baby sea lion. Gaston was the only male sea lion at the zoo, so there is no doubt that he fathered the baby, called "Abiba."

RFE/RL visited Bara and Abiba at their home. Like any mother Bara fussed loudly over Abiba, who is about the size of a big cat, and applauded when her daughter slid around their compound in a particularly attractive manner.

Yesterday Abiba was the star of the show when the zoo commemorated the anniversary of the floods and the zoo's recovery with a swimming exhibition by humans in the sea-lion pool, followed by a performance by the pool's normal inhabitants.