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Prague: Despair and solidarity

Sandbags helped save parts of the historic Old Town from flooding
Sandbags helped save parts of the historic Old Town from flooding  

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Andrew Gardner, editor at Prague-based Internet magazine Transitions Online (TOL), tells CNN how people living and working in Prague are coping with the flood damage to their homes and property, and the massive clean-up operation.

We have gone through very distinct stages here in Prague. At the beginning of the week the general feeling was perhaps fairly unconcerned as, just before the water was supposed to reach their peak, the extent of the flooding was relatively limited, affecting one or two streets in central Prague and some outlying areas.

However by Tuesday afternoon the atmosphere had completely changed, with reports that the worse was still to come and with the waters rising by perhaps 40 centimetres an hour. By then, people were saying: "Wow, it is really going to hit."

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The normal tourist route to the castle over the famous Charles Bridge is okay, but to the right and left much of the historic Mala Strana, was two to three metres underwater. Shops and recently-renovated museums have been affected.

However, perhaps the worst effects in the city were felt just to the north of the historic centre, where mixed industrial and residential areas were completely flooded. Just down the hill from us, one area, Karlin, which lies well over half a kilometre from the river at some points was three metres below water.

A trickle of evacuees are now able to return to their homes. However, in the worst affected areas, such as Karlin, the authorities are saying it may be over a week before the thousands of houses have been checked for damage to the building and sewerage and electrical systems.

There is relief that the mediaeval part of town has escaped undamaged, and also some self-congratulation on the part of the mayor's office. In 1997, there were huge floods in the east of the country, and that prompted the city to buy special metal barriers to contain the floodwaters.

Without that, the floods could easily have spilled over into the Old Town. As it is, some of the pavements have subsided, and they are now checking to see what effect the saturated water levels have had on the foundations of much of the area.

But the story is on the other side of town in the Little Quarter, which is not so old but is home to many embassies and is a pretty area.

It has been completely flooded, with water levels between 2.5 metres and three metres high, which is enough to cover an entire floor. Extensive renovations have been taking place here and they will have to start again.

It is very difficult to get into the badly-affected areas because they have been cordoned off. Most of the damage is still under water. At one stage the floodwaters were four metres high, though now it is about 1.5 metres or two metres.

Lots of buildings have collapsed but there is not too much debris floating by.

There is a stench of sewage in the badly-affected areas but I have not heard of reports of these problems existing in parts of the town where most people will be familiar with. Sandbags have been erected in the tourist areas and these have proven to be effective.

Despair has not really kicked in here yet. I suspect the real experience will only come home when they go back and see the floodwater everywhere.

People are crying in the evacuation centres but there is a great sense of solidarity. Residents are coming in off the street and offering items which may help, such as nappies for mothers with babies.

The real despair is in South Bohemia where entire villages have been cut off and are isolated and where huge problems exist. Huge swathes of land are submerged under water. Everyone is affected in what is basically one of the country's poorer regions.

Residents are returning and finding the buildings which operate as both homes and workplaces completely destroyed. Their livelihoods are in ruin. There the feeling of post-traumatic stress exists.

But in North Bohemia we may also see some similar scenes.

But solidarity exists among the regions. Volunteers from the east of the country, Moravia, have come to help out, and many Moravians have been sending messages of support and financial contributions.

Reports have existed of firefighters giving up their holidays to go to affected areas to help.

A Prague school is serving as a temporary shelter for residents evacuated from flood-stricken districts of the Czech capital
A Prague school is serving as a temporary shelter for residents evacuated from flood-stricken districts of the Czech capital  

For most people in Prague, the most lasting daily reminder may be the transport system. Many key metro stations have been flooded and the electronic and electrical systems will need to be replaced. The spokesman for the city's transport system said that it will be two months before the system is back up and running properly.

Some anger has been reported at those living outside Prague driving their cars in to the capital. Residents say it is too early for motorists to be driving along the bridges which have only just been re-opened.

There have been some sour notes -- some e-mails and letters complaining about tourists taking photos as if the floods are an entertainment when lives are at risk -- about 11 people have died in the country. But I would say, that's been a footnote.

Overall, commentators and officials are saying that efforts to handle the crisis were coordinated much more effectively than they were in 1997. But a debate is beginning on particular issues such as the local zoo, where some animals drowned or had to be put down, and the city's authority's failure to get some key archives out of harms way.

Some reports are questioning whether they should have been better prepared, but the bottom line is that nobody was expecting it to be so bad. Much of the country's key infrastructure is designed to withstand the worst floods in a century, but these are the worst floods in 150 or 200.

Perhaps one lesson that hasn't been learnt properly is by Czechs themselves. Only one-sixth of the total damage caused by the 1997 floods were covered by insurance. The figures this year may not be much better, some are suggesting.


• Dresden floods reach all-time high
August 16, 2002
• Huge cost of Czech floods
August 16, 2002
• Dresden evacuated as waters rise
August 15, 2002
• 'Floods took away my livelihood'
August 14, 2002
• Prague faces 'worst moment'
August 14, 2002

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