Europe

Heavy Rains Cause Devastation Across Europe

After the Flood

Rising waters cut off a crossroads near Hitzacker, Lower Saxony, Germany, on Aug. 23, 2002.
In the last month, flooding throughout Central and Eastern Europe has caused more damage than at any time in the region since World War II. Hardest hit were Germany and the Czech Republic, but Austria and Hungary were also battered by the unusually wet August. Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Russia all suffered sizeable losses as well, with some 7,000 Russian homes under water in 18 towns, and more than 40 dead in Romania and Bulgaria as a result of heavy rains and subsequent floods.

But it was in Germany and the Czech Republic, along the Morava, Elbe, and Danube Rivers that the worst damage occurred. A report in the independent Hungarian weekly HVG (Aug. 24) stated that “The catastrophic flood destruction caused in the heart of Europe by the flooding coming on the heels of the August rains, worse than any in memory, bore a cost—besides the chilling sight of Dresden’s Zwinger Palace or the houses of Prague standing in the waters of the Morava—of more than a hundred dead and immense monetary damage.”

The scale of the catastrophe evoked what seemed like a superhuman response from volunteers and officials. According to the Hungarian magazine Mancs (Aug. 26), “in the most intensive period, some 27,000—waterworks personnel, disaster relief specialists, Town Council workers, soldiers, firemen, and border guards—added their assistance to volunteers in threatened towns.” HVG noted that “in a week and a half, 4.8 million sandbags and more than 60,000 cubic meters of sand were used” by those responding to the looming catastrophe.” In Germany, the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported (Aug. 23) that “along with the great flood, a great community spirit has swept across Germany over the past 10 days. Many Germans have left their safe and dry homes to help uprooted compatriots pile up sand bags in a Sisyphean effort. Others have opened their homes to homeless strangers, and yet others have given up part of their savings to help distraught flood victims rebuild their uninsured livelihoods.”

As the floods continued to spread, every bit of this effort was needed. Record water levels were reached in all the river systems of the area. As HVG declared, “Aside from Dresden—where the water levels reached 9.4 meters—the [Elbe] river threatened Muhlberg, Martin Luther’s city of Wittenberg, and the town made famous by the Bauhaus, Dessau.” In a lucky stroke, Austria escaped with relatively little damage. Though the rising waters of the Danube killed seven, collapsed 10,000 houses, had the old town of Salzburg awash and destroyed some 80 kilometers of railroad tracks, the capital city of Vienna was relatively untouched, due to the damming action of Danube Island, built in 1972.

Hungary’s capital Budapest also fared well, mainly due to pre-flood damming efforts, though the Danube broke depth records along its entire course in that country. “Nowhere did the river break the last line of defense,” wrote HVG of Budapest and northern Hungary.

Barely had the waters begun to recede when official estimates of damage were issued. “German government estimates tentatively put the overall damage at US$14 billion, but one bank economist in Frankfurt, asked to assess the economic impact of the flooding, said that even official figures were at best educated guesses,” wrote Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Aug. 23. In Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg, the Danube and Elbe caused, according to HVG, “more than 100,000 to abandon their homes, and many will not be able to return, as their homes have been washed away.” Despite the fact that “tens of thousands worked on the dams as well as 19,000 soldiers of the Bundeswehr,” the paper reported, “at least 16 died and 26 are still missing, and 740 kilometers of highway and 180 bridges have been rendered useless.”

There are other fears as well. Rescue efforts in both Dresden and Prague saved hundreds of valuable works of art, but many of those cities’ most picturesque and historically significant buildings, including the famous Zwinger Palace and Semper Opera house in Dresden and many buildings in Prague’s famous Jewish Quarter, have been ruined. A still greater fear is that pollutants from the many factories and industrial plants along the Elbe will leak into the water system. German Environmental Minister Jürgen Trittin told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “a full assessment was not possible ‘as long as the flood waters are running,’” but that water supplies remained safe.

Relief was expressed as well when it became clear that flood waters would not reach a nuclear power plant in the Schleswig-Holstein town of Geesthacht. However, officials were not as optimistic as to whether similar pollutants may have been washed into the waters from plants in the Czech Republic. HVG reported that “it is feared that dioxins and mercury may have gotten into the Elbe, and from there, may leak into German waters, though environmental protection analyses have thus far not confirmed these fears.”

In addition to its more obvious results, the flooding has brought unexpected side effects. Just two weeks ago, it appeared that German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was well on the way to defeat in the upcoming elections. Now, his position has been strengthened by his strong leadership during the flood crisis. However, according to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Aug. 23), “more than his forceful appearance, Schröder has been helped by the fact that the flood has washed over his government's meager track record in tackling Germany's structural problems and persistent economic weakness.” Reconstruction efforts in the region may also mean that the 18 percent unemployment rate may go down.

In addition, EU candidate countries Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia may be able to draw on EU coffers for flood repair and humanitarian aid. Budapest’s liberal Népszabadság reported (Aug. 19) that at a flooded-countries summit called for by Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy, the German Chancellor said, “European Union financial institutions should open up flood control and repair funds to EU-candidate countries, even before their entry into the EU.”

But no one is celebrating at the moment. With only US$200 per adult from the EU and Germany immediately available, there will be little comfort for those left stranded, even after the flood waters have receded.

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