In Czech Republic, Unexpected Political Consequences Emerge from Beneath Flood Waters

After the Flood

Floods Czech Republic
Rescuing a rhino in the Prague zoo, Aug. 13, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The worst flooding in more than 100 years has caused up to US$3 billion in losses in the Czech Republic, claimed 15 lives, and ruined priceless cultural artifacts.

In Prague, a onetime imperial seat, the flood’s effect was especially devastating below the Castle, in the Jewish quarter, and in several traditionally working-class neighborhoods. Other Czech towns severely affected by flooding were Terezin, Cesky Krumlov, Ceske Budejovice, and Pilsen.

Hardly had the danger passed before commentators weighed in on the quality of the authorities’ response and the priorities for rebuilding. With each day came new revelations about the floods’ impact on the environment and public spending.

Hungarian and German Press Coverage

The highest official to come in for criticism was the president, Vaclav Havel, who was blasted—by journalists and citizens alike—for not returning promptly from his vacation in Portugal. He arrived two days after Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla declared a state of emergency.

Viliam Buchert scolded him in the Aug. 28 edition of Prague’s independent Mlada Fronta Dnes: “Even if President Vaclav Havel returned from vacation in Portugal on the very first day of the catastrophic floods, he wouldn’t have been able to help matters here significantly. He doesn’t have the authority—or any other forms of influence. Nevertheless, he should have returned as soon as possible. Although it would have been a gesture, it would have been an expected gesture. And in this case it would have been more than an empty gesture.”

Not only did Havel come home late, Buchert asserted, but he gave untruthful excuses for his delay. In other words, he behaved just like “the provincial small Czech fish” the president so often criticizes.

The next day, Mlada Fronta Dnes reported in detail on the reasons for the president’s hesitation. According to the president’s office, these included the time at which Havel decided to return and the lack of direct flights to Prague. “The head of state does not travel like a student,” said presidential spokesman Ladislav Spacek. “The president is a person [who requires] a high level of security, and it is naïve to think that he would sit on his suitcases, at the height of the tourist season, for four hours in Amsterdam’s airport.”

In Prague, the waters peaked on Aug. 14. By then, flooded areas, estimated at 5-8 percent of the city, had been evacuated. The Smichov and Mala Strana neighborhoods were under water, and the basement of the National Theater was flooded, putting the 19th-century structure at risk. From Aug. 12-14, the Prague Zoo evacuated over 1,000 animals from its grounds in Troja, in the city’s north end. Zoo officials were forced to put down Kadira, an elephant, when it became aggressive during evacuation efforts. Several other animals were put down or perished in the waters. A Czech and Slovak zoological association praised rescue efforts by the zoo director and his staff, brushing aside public criticism.

The worst damage to cultural artifacts occurred outside Prague, in Libechov and Terezin. In the latter city, flood waters drenched some 20,000 books—work enough to keep a single conservator busy for 5,000 years, Prague’s independent Lidove Noviny noted.

Preliminary estimates put damages to cultural artifacts and institutions throughout the Czech Republic at more than 2.3 billion crowns (US$73 million ). Government allocations will cover only a fraction of that—10 million crowns, according to an Aug. 23 report in Lidove Noviny. Pavel Dostal, the minister of culture, had sought 350 million crowns for this purpose.

If not for advanced preparation, the blow would have been far worse. A temporary aluminum barrier, dubbed the “Wall of Hope,” was erected along the Vltava River and is credited for saving the city center. Plans for it were made in 1997, when a computer simulation demonstrated the potentially disastrous effects of a big flood.

Zdenek Lukes, an architectural historian, took a long view of the rebuilding process, seeing an opportunity to renew several industrial districts. Worthy models, according to Lukes, include pier developments in Boston and New York and the Corso in Prague’s Karlin district, a large factory hall recently converted to offices by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill.

“What will be the fate of those sections of Prague that have been seriously flooded?” Lukes asked in the Aug. 23 Mlada Fronta Dnes. Is there any hope that Holesovice, Smichov, or Karlin will continue their transformation from neglected industrial zones, slated in the communist era for gradual elimination, into lively areas with a unique atmosphere? I am convinced that there is. These are places in our metropolis that are too valuable. We will have to preserve them better against floods….

“The old Karlin buildings are sturdy. A greater problem will probably be new buildings, because inferior materials were used in their construction. It will be necessary to replace severely damaged buildings, and I hope that the damaged buildings are not architecturally valuable. There are already a number of worthy examples of how to utilize factories that have seen better days and introduce life here, without allowing this unique area to lose its atmosphere.”

Among Czechs, there was a general sense of satisfaction and surprise that security and public order were maintained in the face of so great a catastrophe. President Havel spoke of solidarity unseen since the Soviet invasion of 1968.

As it turned out, some Prague residents were less than unified in spirit, defying until the last minute orders to evacuate threatened areas. Prague’s mayor, Igor Nemec, declared on Aug. 22 that these stragglers would be required to pay for rescue services—although it remained unclear whether an accurate accounting was even possible.

Employees at the Military Archive at the Ministry of Defense were among those accused of disobeying evacuation orders—and then seeking the help of firefighters. A member of the city council, queried by the left-wing Prague daily Pravo, declined to comment on whether the city would impose a fine on the Ministry of Defense.

Tourists made the best of a bad situation. “Foreigners See the Flood as an Attraction; Czechs Rush Home from Vacation,” declared a headline in Mlada Fronta Dnes. At noontime on Aug. 14, the paper reported, the floods were a curiosity for the majority of foreign visitors. Prague’s weekly Respekt (Aug. 19) found a slightly different reality on Wenceslas Square, where a group of foreigners was seated beside their luggage:

“We had to leave our hotel,” says 35-year-old Dan, of Minnesota. Together with his wife, Caroline, he was staying in a hotel on Jilska Street, which was at risk of being flooded. “I don’t know what will happen to us. We’re supposed to wait here until 5 p.m. Someone is supposed to come and get us,” he says, shrugging. Then, to be sure, he asks about a safe place on higher ground. He circles Vinohrady on a map. “We’re completely confused about this. Nobody explained anything to me in English.”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Prague residents will need new housing, according to Lidove Noviny (Aug. 23). The city is making arrangements to move residents to government-owned housing temporarily, but there are expected to be far more seekers than vacancies. Long-term housing will be required for those whose houses were destroyed.

The flood also left its mark on nature. For several days, sewage and chemicals flowed into Czech rivers without any restraint. “In terms of water quality, our rivers have been set back 12 years,” Vaclav Berousek, an environmental official, told Lidove Noviny (Aug. 23). “Of course, it’s going to have an effect on environmental quality.” He added that water quality would improve quickly, in a matter of weeks or months.

President Havel, writing in London’s centrist Financial Times on Aug. 21, saw a possible link between this natural disaster and recent efforts to tame nature: “When extensive floods hit Moravia and the eastern part of our country in 1997, I thought hard about the responsibility of humans for their actions. Those thoughts come back to mind.” Havel continued: “We need to think whether we do not provoke the destructive force of water ourselves, by the often over-extravagant development of our civilization and by our long-term attacks on the natural fabric of the landscape. We must consider the damage we may have caused through excessive use and exploitation of our waterways, especially in the communist era, when gigantic fields were sown and rivers were diverted into concrete channels to irrigate them. That era has passed in Europe but its legacy is still with us today.”

Czechs could find extracts from Havel’s commentary in Lidove Noviny and Pravo.

As the flood waters receded, parliament went into emergency session, and politicians began debating how to pay for the cleanup. According to an Aug. 22 Pravo report, Prime Minister Spidla estimated total damages at 60-90 billion crowns (US$1.9-2.8 billion). In Prague, the damages—10 billion crowns—are nearly a third of the yearly budget, Mlada Fronta Dnes found. Cesky Krumlov’s budget, 300 million, is equivalent to the town’s estimated flood damages.

The government is planning to raise taxes to make up for an expected shortfall due to cleanup costs. Explaining his plans on Aug. 23, Finance Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told reporters from Mlada Fronta Dnes, “I myself prefer a solution that would rest on society as a whole. I prefer that all citizens pay for flood damages.”

Years from now, older Czechs may recall the flood of 2002 for the hardships it caused. But one adult, Martin Komarek, put himself in the position of a child living in one of Prague’s flooded neighborhoods, where classes will begin late this fall.

“It’s as though the flood has completely washed away all the good news,” Komarek lamented in Mlada Fronta Dnes (Aug. 23). “It’s possible to look at matters rather cynically. For example, since most Czechs are maliciously envious, then nearly half of the population has cause for great happiness. Or consider things this way: Czechs are misers. When they take a vacation by the water, they make do with the worst accommodations, especially when it is a good and expensive location.

“There is, however, one piece of good news that cannot be disputed. Children from those places that have been affected [by the flood] will have a longer vacation. Every normal child is grateful for a calamity, as long as it means they don’t have to go to school. ... For future generations, the memory of the floods will be tied to something quite pleasant. And, after all, that would be the best way to look at this beast of a flood.”