PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Firefighters and volunteers fought back river waters swamping the National Theater and other landmarks Wednesday as unprecedented flooding that has killed at least 98 people across Europe threatened this medieval city's historic Old Town.
The raging Vltava River hit its highest point yet in the flooding, just hours after police evacuated residents from the capital's quaint cobblestone center. Officials said the evening hours would put hours of work and thousands of sandbags to the test.
Flood waters gradually began receding late Wednesday, raising spirits among officials who worked around the clock to secure the city. No more torrential rains -- just scattered showers at most -- were expected in Prague over the next day or so; forecasts over the rest of central Europe varied.
An 81-year-old man drowned after refusing to evacuate his home in Pisek, 60 miles south of Prague, raising the Czech Republic's death toll to 10. Germany, also the scene of devastating flooding, reported 10 deaths, with six other people missing.
In Germany, raging waters cut off towns in Saxony state and flooded parts of Dresden, including the famed Semper-Oper opera house and the Zwinger palace, home to a renowned collection of Renaissance paintings. More than 20,000 people fled their homes.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, visiting Grimma near the swollen Mulde river, called the flooding the worst he had seen.
"This is not a task for one state or for Saxony -- this is a task for Germany," Schroeder said of the rebuilding effort.
Slovakia declared a state of emergency as the Danube River rose dangerously high in the capital, Bratislava. There were widespread power outages and people used boats to get to work.
The extreme rains in Europe are not a result of El Nino and should not be blamed on global warming, said Christophe Cassou, a climate expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. Although scientists believe global warming will create more episodes of extreme weather, no single episode can confidently be attributed to it, he said Wednesday.
Instead, a strong high pressure area off Spain and a strong low pressure area between Iceland and Norway are setting the stage for more storms and heavy rainfall in central and eastern Europe, Cassou said.
Devastating flooding has not been limited to Europe this summer.
In Asia, flood waters poured into the capital of a remote northeastern Indian state and mudslides swept through a Nepalese village as the death toll from two months of seasonal monsoon rains rose to nearly 900 in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, officials said Wednesday.
China also has experienced summer storms and flooding that have killed more than 800 people.
Most of Europe's casualties since flooding began Aug. 2 have been in Russia, where the death toll rose by one on Wednesday to 59 -- mostly Russian tourists vacationing on the Black Sea who were swept away by water last week.
That toll could rise since 30 cars and buses remain on the sea floor, unchecked yet by authorities. New storm warnings were issued.
In Austria, where at least seven people have died, the swollen Danube River flooded a popular Vienna island used for recreation and picnics, submerging small restaurants and stalls.
But the mighty river receded in some stricken villages and was rising at a slower rate in others, authorities said Wednesday. Austria's national weather service, meanwhile, said the torrential rains that unleashed the catastrophic flooding were over.
An Austrian government aid package will channel $640 million in assistance to flooded areas.
In the neighboring Czech Republic, the Vltava hit its highest level yet -- 25 feet -- by midafternoon. Although forecasters were hopeful the worst downpours had passed, heavy wind gusts threatened to drive flood waters farther into downtown Prague.
Tourists and other onlookers swarmed to the river's edge, watching the menacing, brown waters roil just a few feet under the arcs of the capital's ornate bridges. Two sea lions that escaped from Prague's zoo swam in the river.
Crowds also gathered around the National Theater, a neo-Renaissance-style structure that opened June 11, 1881, to honor visiting Hapsburg Crown Prince Rudolf. Its basement was flooded, and volunteers worked in mud and puddles to try to keep the waters from encroaching farther.
"There's nothing you can really do about the river," said Rob Demmer, 25, a Buffalo, N.Y., native living in Prague. "You can only try to minimize the damage."
Hundreds of thousands of Czechs fled the rushing waves of the Vltava and dozens of other rivers, searching for higher ground amid torrential rains. About 70,000 capital residents left their homes, officials said Wednesday.
"We're fighting a phenomenon," Prague Mayor Igor Nemec said. "Whether the water will spill over the barriers or not remains to be seen."
Sirens wailed through deserted streets as the Old Town evacuation progressed, spurred on by water lapping within 18 inches of the barrier's top.
Prague municipal workers arrived at City Hall before dawn to save documents. Residents of the former Jewish quarter -- the site of a centuries-old cemetery and several synagogues -- also were ordered out.
Much of the capital remained without electricity or phone service, and at least three streets were accessible only by boat. Officials shut off natural gas pipelines.
At the Prague zoo, a gorilla was missing and presumed drowned Wednesday, a day after zookeepers moved about 300 animals to higher ground. An elephant and hippopotamus had to be euthanized.