Prague Braces for Cresting River as Floods Paralyze City

Prague is bracing for the swollen Vltava River to crest today as the Czech government deploys hundreds of soldiers to avert a repeat of the 2002 floods that destroyed neighborhoods and caused $1.2 billion in damage.

Five people have died and thousands have been evacuated in the Czech Republic, while parts of Prague’s historic city center have been flooded since yesterday. Promenades lining the river that bisects the capital are below water, submerging benches, playgrounds and trees. The government called a state of emergency in seven regions, including Prague, and pledged $15 million in relief aid. Prague’s transport authorities shut subway routes, while City Hall said people should refrain from driving to work and ordered schools to close today.

“I’d like to express my sympathies to all affected by floods and state that the government will help them to deal with the situation,” Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas said at a briefing after an emergency meeting yesterday.

Nonstop spring storms have raised the specter of the 2002 floods that crippled Prague, shut down the subway system for weeks and saddled insurers with tens of billions of koruna in claims just as the Czech Republic was preparing to join the European Union. Districts such as the blue-collar Karlin and the castle-area Mala Strana were left under water 11 years ago, forcing massive municipal reconstruction projects.

Weather Forecast

The Czech weather forecasting service said rains in central Bohemia will lighten up today and end by midweek. An additional 15 millimeters (two-thirds of an inch) is expected today, after more than twice that amount pounded the country yesterday.

Even so, the Vltava and other rivers continue to swell. The management of the river basin predicts that Prague’s river would crest this afternoon as rising water levels in tributaries feed into Vltava.

“Vltava should crest this afternoon and reach the height of 497 centimeters with the flow rate of 2,900 cubic meters per second,” river authority spokeswoman Michaela Pohunkova said by phone today. The authority doesn’t have any estimates when the water level may start to decline. In 2002, Vltava reached 782 centimeters with a flow rate of 5,160 cubic meters per second.

Hundreds of Prague residents yesterday were told to leave their homes. A downtown hospital was evacuated, with patients transferred to outlying facilities, and some towns along rivers leading into the capital were ordered to evacuate.

Assessing Possessions

Marcela Strakova, a 35-year-old stage producer who lives next to Charles Bridge, was making a mental checklist of what to carry, should the order come for her neighborhood.

“I was standing in my apartment, thinking what I’m going to take with me if the evacuation comes,” she said yesterday.

The Czech Republic is not alone in central Europe to suffer from flooding. At least four people died or are missing in Germany and Switzerland, the Associated Press reported, while one perished in neighboring Austria.

The German cities of Passau, about 30 miles from the Czech border, and Rosenheim declared a state of emergency, and Passau requested help from the federal army. Bavaria’s flood alert service warned that the forecast of continuing heavy rain was likely to worsen the flooding affecting the Danube and the Inn, among other rivers.

Bavaria, Austria

Rivers in Saxony and Baden-Wuerttemberg, as well as in Bavaria, have burst their banks, according to a Sueddeutsche Zeitung report. A man was found dead in Salzburg, Austria, and two others are missing, according to the Salzburger Nachrichten. The army is also helping civil authorities.

Bratislava, the capital of neighboring Slovakia, and Budapest in Hungary were also preparing for flood defense on the Danube River.

In Prague, the city closed the underground Metro system in the center, including the Old Town and Mala Strana stations, and shut off the historic Charles Bridge to foot traffic. Gas and electricity utilities cut off supplies to parts of the city and around the country as a precaution.

More Closures

More than 200 people in Prague were evacuated, while some three thousands more in local municipalities across Bohemia were told to leave their homes, according to the fire brigade.

As the flood danger grew more apparent yesterday, the army and fire brigades were called out to protect the Karlin and Mala Strana neighborhoods, among the heaviest hit by floods in 2002, with metal walls erected along the river to protect the most historic and picturesque parts of the city.

The memory of 11 years ago, when waters rose above the ground floors of hundreds of apartment buildings and stores, left residents nervous about the possibility another flood.

Jaroslav Tuma, 35, owner of a small gallery selling hand-made souvenirs in a narrow street 100 meters (109 yards) from the river in Mala Strana, pointed to a mark on the wall about six feet high showing the flood level from 2002.

“I’m more worried now, even though I think the city is better prepared than a decade ago,” Tuma said. “I’ll have to be on alert and move quickly when I see the water breaking out from the sewers.”

Flood Fatalities

An unidentified woman and a man died yesterday in Trebenice, a village some 30 kilometers outside of Prague, when water seepage undermined the foundation of a summer cottage, causing the wooden building to collapse over them, fire brigade spokeswoman Nicole Zaoralova said by phone. Police was also looking for two boaters that were missing during floods, she said.

Over the weekend, authorities issued flood warnings in Prague and Plzen, the home of SABMiller Plc’s Pilsner Urquell brewery, which was also heavily hit by rains. Warnings of extreme rain or floods were issued in seven Czech regions including Prague, according to the Czech state weather forecast service’s website.

Parts of the cities of Decin and Usti nad Labem,in the northern part of the country, were evacuated as the Elbe river continued to rise, emergency services reported.

At the Cisarsky Ostrov island near the Prague Zoo, onlookers yesterday watched firefighters raise barriers. Cars wound their way along the roads, some of which were already under water. Local horse-riding and dog-training clubs evacuated all the animals in the morning before their facilities became flooded.

Workers at the Prague Zoo, where the 2002 disaster killed animals including an elephant that had become trapped in a pen as water rushed in, moved animals including gorillas to higher ground.

Mountain river runoff flooded village homes west of Prague. In Beroun, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of Prague, authorities evacuated a retirement home and shut off electricity at the town’s flooded bus station.

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