Czech Republic overcomes devastating floods

Town of Prestice, Photo:CTK

In this special edition of Talking Point, Dita Asiedu looks at the past few days of devastating floods that swept across the country, taking the lives of 14 people.

Prague's City Part Troja,  Photo:CTK
In the last week or so, some 220,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes. Some of them are staying with relatives, others with friends, many at evacuation centres and just a fraction have been able to go back home. The volume of water came as a surprise to many, who left their homes as emergency sirens were sounded and emergency services ordered residents, and tourists staying at hotels, to evacuate the area and leave their precious belongings behind:

"Six in the morning I heard the sirens outside and the loudspeakers saying something in Czech like 'evacuation'. Then a few minutes later they knocked at my door and I went to the door in my underwear, and the policeman just said you have to get out, you have to get out, the water is coming. So my girlfriend and I dressed and we ran downstairs and got out. The water was right there at the side of the door and we just got away, and they told us to leave."

"The evacuation was smooth and well-organised, and the accommodation was surprisingly...complete. My son, who is 16, spent all night down there packing sand bags. I stayed and watched them work, and it was an extraordinary effort. And we found it to be a great display of the spirit of the city."

"I've been here since half past nine in the morning. I just saw the river going up and up, just rising. You can see many things flowing in the water. Now you can see they are just trying to raise some things from the water, because they can damage the bridges. This is the first time something like this has happened in Prague."

Well, the water has receded and the country is now at work restoring what the catastrophic floods have destroyed. What appear to be ghost towns at night, look like flea-markets by day as residents and thousands of volunteer workers carry soaked furniture out of flats to dry in the sun. Accompanied by a stench resulting from the overflow of the sewer system, they sieve through the mud and debris looking for anything that has not been ruined.

With it expected to take months before the flood-hit areas are cleaned, hygienists warn of a high risk of disease. The head of the Central Bohemian Crisis Committee, Dr Libuse Polanska, urged those taking part in the clean up to protect themselves from disease:

"The problems we are facing seem to change every hour but the biggest is the epidemiological situation. We have to keep it on the positive level that it currently is on by providing vaccines for the affected areas. We plan to start with the children, followed by fire fighters and clean-up volunteers. What is most important is that, during the clean up, people wear gloves, clothing that covers the entire body and boots. Before eating they should always wash their hands and immediately attend to any injuries as we expect the area to be contaminated."

As far as material damage is concerned, economists estimated a loss of billions of Czech crowns. Flooding resulted in the closing of about half of Prague's metro stations, the city's cultural life has come to a standstill, and valuable places such as Kampa island, the Jewish Quarter, and the Prague zoo have all suffered much damage. Residents of the non-affected areas were quick to donate food, shelter, and other necessities whilst mothers, fathers, children, and grandparents supported each other in a desperate attempt at remaining hopeful that not all was lost. And not everyone has a home to come back to. Over 200 houses collapsed in the flood and many more will have to be torn down. Others have to come to terms with the fact that their failure to insure their property against flood damage may leave them either homeless or deep in debt. But there still are numerous claims for insurance and Ceska Pojistovna - the country's biggest insurance company - spent several days strengthening its claims service. Richard Kapsa is the Head of Communications:

"Ceska Pojistovna expects claims overwhelming the amount of damages of the 1997 floods in Moravia. This means that Ceska Pojistovna will pay out an amount of several billion Czech crowns. First of all, we will concentrate on the destroyed houses and households just to help the most affected people with money and in the most difficult cases we will pay out deposits. In the fastest cases it is a matter of days after the water disappears from the houses and our employees will be allowed to come into the house."

After the worst was over, many wondered what caused the devastating floods in Central Europe. Whilst there are several factors responsible, the main reason is the coming together of numerous fronts and pressure areas above the Central European region, resulting in heavy rain. Furthermore, dams, lakes and ponds failed to control the large volumes of water and there were not enough flood release basins.

Town of Prestice,  Photo:CTK
Pavel Puncohar is in charge of flood prevention at the agriculture ministry:

"Inadequate flood prevention is a problem common to all central European states mainly due to the fact that in the course of the last century floods in this part of the world were scarce and did not cause severe damage. As a result the last decade of the twentieth century with its frequent and often devastating floods came a surprise and only then did most of the central European countries start work in earnest on flood prevention. So I agree that flood prevention has been neglected but it is not something that has been neglected in the last few years - the problem goes a long way back."

According to Mr Puncohar, the agriculture ministry has launched a four-year flood prevention programme thanks to a loan from the European investment bank and money from the state budget. This project is to take place between 2002 and 2005 with the goal of substantially improving the situation in the high risk areas of Moravia and north Bohemia.

Architectural historian Zdenek Lukes would welcome this project, telling Radio Prague earlier that it is one way of protecting historical buildings:

"I think it needs a special programme, how to revitalize all these parts of the city, and also the sewage system, for instance. I think maybe a programme of collecting money with help from international institutions. I think that some states started to help Prague with experts, for instance. This is one thing. Another is material to repair and maybe architects also to say what it is necessary to do with the system of regulation of the river and so on."

But that, of course needs money. A few billion euros at the least and the Czech Republic has not been deserted. Several organisations, including the People in Need Foundation, Adra, as well as UNESCO, are all lobbying for aid and support. Besides the large number of international organisations, several countries have expressed solidarity with the Czech Republic, offering machinery, monetary aid and manpower. Currently, there are close to two hundred rescue workers from 18 countries in the Czech Republic, many of whom arrived with water pumps, industrial dryers and other heavy machinery necessary for the clean up.

The biggest organisation vowing to help the country is the European Union. Ralf Dreyer is the European Commission's charge d'affaires in Prague:

"We have assured the Czech government of our solidarity and we have made a proposal that puts at the immediate disposal of the government roughly sixty million euros which is partly re-allocated from existing funds but there is, as well, a new grant of about 10 million euros that the Czech authorities can use to deal with the damage. That altogether amounts to 58 million euros which will be made available in a very short time -once damage assessment and need-assessment has been done and engineers have made appropriate proposals."

The relief package from the EU is to be used for the restoration of communications, drinking water systems, public sewerage and wastewater treatment plants. Furthermore the European Commission will increase the Czech Republic's allocation from the PHARE programme by close to ten million euros. These funds should complement the rapid aid package and focus on improving citizens' living conditions and the restoration of the country's damaged cultural heritage. The Czech foreign ministry has said it is grateful for the solidarity displayed and is currently co-ordinating these offers with the country's immediate needs.

The interior minister, Stanislav Gross, has also called onto artists for help. On Monday evening, several bands got together at Prague's Lucerna Music Bar to give a charity concert. The proceeds are to go to the SOS flood fund set up by the People in Need Foundation. And since our time is up, we shall end today's Talking Point with a song by Anna K, one of the performers at Monday's concert.