European Floods Claim 105 Lives

The muddy waters of the Elbe River reached their peak then eased back Saturday, raising hope that the city's restored historic buildings might be spared more damage from the disastrous flooding that has swept much of Europe.

Downstream from Dresden, though, the rain-swollen river spilled over its banks into several more towns of eastern Germany, wrecking roads and railways and chasing thousands of people to higher ground.

The roar of generators powering huge pumps filled Dresden's baroque Theater Square as workers battled to keep water lapping at the square from spilling into the Semper Opera and the Zwinger Palace museum. Firehoses spewed water that seeped through sandbags back over the barriers.

Crowds of townspeople gathered to watch the fight to protect the city's old buildings, which were painstakingly rebuilt after World War II. Some took snapshots or videos.

"The crest has been reached; it won't get worse," said a retired miner, Gunter Weyhmann, 78.

"If it doesn't rain," his 80-year-old wife, Henny, added warily. "Dresden was completely destroyed in the war and we were glad to see it rebuilt -- and now this."

City officials said the river had fallen a few inches from a record high of just under 31 feet early Saturday. Worse had been feared as the Elbe was swelled by waters that flowed downstream from the floods that hit the Czech Republic last week.

At Dresden's Zwinger Palace, whose collection of Old Masters had been taken to higher floors, the pumps were holding their own against groundwater seeping into the basement through foundations and sewers.

"The art is secure, the building is damaged, and the water is stable. We just hope we can pull through," said museum spokesman Tilmann Stockhausen.

The nearby Church of Our Lady cathedral, flattened by British bombs late in the war and being pieced back together as a symbol of the city's resilience, escaped serious damage. Only its basement soaked in several inches of water.

Despite dramatic news reports of floods that have caused at least 105 deaths across Europe the past few weeks, German officials have struggled to persuade people to heed the danger. A 56-year-old man drowned late Friday in his Dresden basement, which he was checking a final time before leaving.

With more than 100,000 people evacuated or getting ready to leave their homes, emergency accommodations were set up in schools and shopping malls. Red Cross workers were erecting a tent city for up to 10,000 people in Pirna.

Farther north, rivers broke through or spilled over defenses near at least three towns.

Water seeped through sandbags close to the near-deserted village of Muehlberg in Brandenburg state, state interior minister Joerg Schoenbohm said. Helicopters were dumping sand from the air onto weak spots in the dikes.

The torrent tore away the central pillars of a rail bridge near Riesa on the main line from Berlin to Leipzig. National railroad Deutsche Bahn said it would take hundreds of millions of dollars to fix its tracks and stations.

Police blew up a ferryboat on the that broke away from its moorings on the Elbe to prevent it from smashing into a bridge in Dresden. The steel structure, built in 1893, was already closed because of concern about its strength.

South of Dresden, police blew up a ferryboat that had broken away from its moorings. They feared it might wreck a bridge downstream.

Farther west, water from an open-pit coal mine flooded earlier in the week by the Mulde River spilled over walls of sandbags and swept into the town of Bitterfeld, flowing through the streets as people scooped up pets and possessions and fled.

About a third of the town was under water, but officials said a huge chemical complex nearby was not in danger although emergency workers were building a wall of sandbags at the site as a precaution.

Despite forecasts of mostly sunny weather, high waters were expected to threaten other cities in the coming days, including Dessau and Magdeburg. Keepers were removing some of the animals from Magdeburg's zoo.

The flooding has caused as much as $14.8 billion in damage in Germany, Klaus Friedrich, the chief economist at insurer Allianz, told Saturday's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

In the Czech Republic and Austria, thousands of volunteers and soldiers began cleaning up as rivers slowly receded.

Czech workers scraped thick layers of mud from the streets of Prague's Kampa island, where historical palaces had flooded up to their rooftops. Some people were allowed to return to their homes, but two apartment buildings collapsed over the last two days in one hard-hit district.

In the province of Lower Austria, 6,000 firefighters used 1,000 vehicles and equipment to wash away mud hardening fast under the warm sun.

"Streets are up to a half meter [1 feet] covered with mud," said Norbert Fuehringer, an Austrian soldier. "Basements and canals are also filled with it."