Floods Force 33,000 in Germany to Flee

Dresden residents grabbed what they could and fled for higher ground Friday as the Elbe River rose to record levels, engulfing one neighborhood after another and forcing workers to abandon some efforts to save the city's world-famous cultural landmarks.

Fed by high water that struck the Czech capital of Prague earlier this week, the Elbe rose above 29 feet Friday, carrying refrigerators, sofas and cars as its swirling waters engulfed one neighborhood after the other. It was expected to crest Saturday.

A total of 33,000 Dresden residents were forced to leave their homes by Friday, police said. The death toll from two weeks of flooding across Europe rose to 104 as two more victims were found in the Czech Republic and one in Austria Friday,

In Dresden, firefighters evacuated Christine Fritzsch, 69, and her neighbors from their apartment house at 1 a.m. to a middle school across town.

Sitting on camp beds in a school classroom Friday evening, they said they had watched the water approach the front steps. Their TV sets blinked out, then their telephones went dead.

"Then I knew that we had to get out," she said.

"We were well prepared, they warned us several times so we could get our things ready," said Hildegard Paulus, 75. Along with a few clothes and toiletries, she'd brought her favorite family photos to safety.

Sandbags were running out in Dresden as residents young and old guarded their streets from the muddy tide with thick walls.

"You have to always add more. Every half an hour we added another layer, but it's hard to say if it's enough," said Richard Schutze, 49, his hands cut from hauling the burlap sacks.

Earlier Friday, emergency workers were forced to give up efforts to pump the basement of Dresden's famed 19th-century Semper Opera, leaving stage sets, sheet music and instruments stored below ground to a watery fate.

Next door in the Zwinger Palace museum, thousands of priceless artworks by the old masters were stacked eight to ten deep in their gilded frames on the museum's upper floors.

"It's quite incredible that we saved everything," said Martin Roth, the general director of Dresden's museums. "Next week everybody will probably collapse."

Bridges spanning the Elbe were closed to all but emergency traffic.

Water was rising to the second floor of homes in Meissen, 12 miles downstream from Dresden. Shopkeepers and homeowners feared looting as electricity and gas were cut and people were forced to flee the town.

Desperate residents in Bitterfeld fought to contain waters from a swollen lake threatening to engulf their town. Already 1,300 people had evacuated their homes.

Some of the 350 plants in east Germany's largest chemical industry complex in Bitterfeld moved chemicals to higher ground and partly shut down as a precaution. But a spokesman for the sprawling facility, Matthias Gabriel, said it was not at risk from floodwaters from the Mulde river -- an Elbe tributary -- about 4 miles away.

Further north, Germans braced for the Elbe's high waters to spill over into cities and towns on its way to the North Sea. Tens of thousands of residents in the central eastern city of Magdeburg and in Brandenburg state, surrounding Berlin, packed up valuables and moved furniture to their upper floors.

Floodwaters are expected to reach there over the weekend, despite a mostly sunny weather forecast. Authorities appealed to people to evacuate before the water reached their front doors.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, struggling in his campaign for a second term in Sept. 22 elections, spoke of a "national catastrophe" and promised to spearhead a rebuilding effort.

He said that the damage to infrastructure, property and farming will total billions of dollars in Germany alone.

Receding waters in the Czech Republic revealed the bodies to two victims, a motorist swept away by the flood and a 44-year-old who drowned. A German tourist was found dead in Austria, where he had been vacationing when the floods hit. Most casualties were in Russia, where 59 mostly Russian tourists died.

In Prague, city officials were still refusing to let people return to the Old Town on Friday, fearing unstable buildings and palaces would collapse. Much of the city is built on sand, which could be swept away with the retreating waters leaving buildings on unstable foundations.

The U.S. government donated $50,000 to the Czech Red Cross for immediate humanitarian assistance, as well pumps, drying and other equipment, the U.S. Embassy in Prague said. The United States has also offered to assist in repair and restoration for the historic Kampa Island.

Austrians began cleaning up mud and debris scattered in homes and streets of villages in the wake of the swollen Danube. Slovaks breathed easier as the major flooding from the raging Danube bypassed the capital Bratislava, but Hungary was bracing for high water to hit Budapest.

Flooding also caused damage in other parts of the world:

-- Heavy rains burst two dams and sent a wave of flood waters roaring over villages in central Mexico. At least 11 people were killed and three people were missing.

-- A massive mudslide caused by storms swept through several villages in southwest China's Yunnan province, killing 28 people and leaving 36 missing, a government official said Friday.

-- Annual monsoon flooding has wreaked havoc in South Asia, killing more than 900 people in Nepal, India and Bangladesh since June and displacing or trapping about 25 million more.