Czechs Flee Prague as Devastating Flooding Hits Europe

Published August 13, 2002

| Associated Press

Tens of thousands of Czechs fled their historic capital for higher ground Tuesday as torrential rains turned the Vltava River into a menacing cascade and unleashed more flooding that has now killed at least 88 people across Europe.

Churning toward Prague's Old Town, the heart of the capital and a popular tourist stop, the brown, swollen Vltava inflicted the worst flooding in more than a century on the Czech Republic. Officials said at least nine people died after more than a week of heavy rainfall.

Water engulfed Prague's historic Kampa island, flooding architectural gems dating to the Hapsburg Empire. Volunteers gathered around landmarks and scrambled to fill hundreds of sandbags in a desperate bid to save the city's treasures from rising waters.

At least 40,000 residents of low-lying areas of Prague -- a city of just over 1 million inhabitants -- were ordered to leave their homes Tuesday, and a total of 200,000 were evacuated nationwide, Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said. The 340-room Intercontinental Hotel and the Four Seasons Hotel evacuated their guests at the peak of the summer tourist season.

But by 9 p.m. Tuesday, the threat to the Old Town appeared to be easing.

Czech television said the Vltava was expected to rise only by another foot, and Jan Buergermeister, the official in charge of the area, said even triple that would affect only the evacuated areas.

Emergency workers cleared bridges of hundreds of people watching the rising waters, but many tourists ignored the call to evacuate.

"This is a quite different experience than I thought I would get," said Mike McCloskey, 20, a student from Philadelphia who photographed volunteers building a barrier along the road leading to the river.

In neighboring Austria, where at least seven people have died, firefighters and Red Cross volunteers were stacking sandbags to hold back parts of the swollen Danube River, which flooded Vienna's port and some low-lying streets.

The Danube punched through dams in the town of Ybbs in Lower Austria province Tuesday, and emergency workers in hip boots gingerly waded along railroad tracks, pulling out debris. The Defense Ministry said 8,000 soldiers were battling floods in Upper Austria and along the Danube.

The flooding affected an estimated 60,000 Austrians, who either were evacuated from their homes or suffered flood damage, authorities said. In Salzburg province, more than 1,000 buildings were under water, and in the badly flooded Danube town of Krems, residents were urged to abandon lower floors Tuesday night.

"Upper Austria offers the image of misery -- a land submerged in water," said Josef Puehringer, the provincial governor.

Most of Europe's flooding casualties were in Russia, where at least 58 people were killed late last week -- mostly Russian tourists vacationing on the Black Sea who were ambushed by flood waters that swept cars and tents out to sea.

In Germany, where firefighters and soldiers stacked sandbags to reinforce strained river banks, a 71-year-old man drowned Monday night in flooding in Dresden, and a cascade of mud and water swept away two adults and a child Tuesday, German authorities said.

Numerous dams were in danger of breaking in towns along the Danube near Passau, a city on the Austrian border whose old town was completely submerged Tuesday.

In Romania, flooding and strong winds killed at least seven people in recent days. In the eastern part of the country Monday, a small tornado struck a house, killing a 24-year-old woman and her 17-month-old baby.

Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, who declared a state of emergency Monday night, deployed 4,000 soldiers throughout the country, and President Vaclav Havel cut short a Portugal vacation because of flooding that destroyed or rendered impassable more than a dozen bridges.

Officials called the flooding Prague's worst since 1890.

"It's bad," said Jiri Zboril, a 41-year-old bookstore owner moving volumes to the upper floors of his sandbagged building.

Earlier Tuesday, the Vltava rose 19 feet above normal levels, flooding four districts near the city's historical center and prompting Czech television to broadcast a plea for sandbags and volunteers.

"I've been here all day," said Denis Kasicin, a law student from Moscow helping to pile bags. "I came because the water won't choose who it will affect -- a Czech, a Slovak, a Russian ... that's why I have to work here."

Authorities, meanwhile, kept close watch over what was considered the weakest point on the river -- a low embankment near the Four Seasons Hotel.

Stores and offices lost power by mid-afternoon, forcing many to shut down, and the Prague Stock Exchange suspended trading. Hundreds of people hurried through the cobblestone streets, rushing to get home before transportation links shut down.

At the Zoological Garden on the outskirts of Prague, about 400 animals were moved to higher ground. They included two rhinos who were moved with a crane and four gorillas who were sedated. A fifth gorilla was missing but presumed to be hiding within the zoo.

Zoo employees had to euthanize a 35-year-old Indian elephant called Kadir after he ended up stranded up to his ears in a flooded part of the zoo and was in danger of drowning, a worker said. A hippopotamus that escaped from its corral in the chaos and became aggressive also had to be put down, the worker said.

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