It is exactly five years ago that the Czech Republic was hit by devastating floods: the worst in the country's history. Within a matter of hours fifty thousand people were left homeless, hundreds found themselves stranded, and dozens went missing.
Five years ago air raid type sirens rang out around the Old Town and Jewish Quarter as the swollen Vltava River spilled over into the streets of Prague's historic city centre. Residents and tourists were woken at two am and given ten minutes to pack essentials as the city's emergency services evacuated entire streets. Those who failed to leave in time had to be rescued by helicopter later. Volunteers joined the police, emergency crews, fire-fighters and the army in saving lives, erecting makeshift barriers, and salvaging what they could from the rising tide of muddy water. Within just a few hours parts of town including Mala Strana, Kampa, Holesovice, and Karlin were underwater.
Troubky, photo: CTK
Outside of Prague the situation was much the same - many towns and villages in Bohemia were either flooded or cut off from the world. The town of Troubky in South Bohemia was completely destroyed. Of the several dozen people that went missing, 17 were later found drowned. When the country emerged from the nightmare days later, the overall damage was assessed at 63 billion crowns (the equivalent of more than 3 billion US dollars). The country's precious historic legacy: unique architecture, books and paintings took a heavy hit, some was beyond salvation. The government revised its budget to meet the country's new needs and although the Czech Republic was not at the time a fully fledged member of the EU, Brussels pitched in to help. At a press conference marking the fifth anniversary of the floods on Monday, Prague Mayor Pavel Bem said that in the past five years money had been systematically channeled into flood prevention.
"Ninety-five percent of the city is now protected against a disaster of such a magnitude. The overall investment into an effective system of flood protection amounts to three and a half billion crowns of which over two billion have already been spent. I would venture to say that no other European city has spent as much on flood prevention and the result is a unique system of fixed and mobile barriers; a system that experts from Warsaw, Krakow, Dresden as well as some Dutch cities have been studying and copying."
In the event of a new flood the system of flood protection barriers in and around Prague could be erected within 24 hours. They would withstand floods similar to that of 2002 - the worst in 500 years - and more. The city's emergency services are prepared to act effectively and with greater coordination than they did in 2002. Looking back, Prague's mayor Pavel Bem says that the city of Prague learnt a tough lesson in August of that year but has come out of the ordeal the stronger.
"Today, five years after the floods, I can say that Prague lost much, but also gained much from this disaster. Work on the river bed and embankments which had dragged on for 160 years - ever since floods in 1845 - was finally given top priority and was completed. The flood damage to Prague amounted to 27 billion crowns but much more than that has since been channeled into flood prevention, construction and reconstruction of entire districts. According to our estimates some 40 billion crowns have been spent on preserving the city's genius loci and making it more attractive than ever."
Today only small plaques - showing how high the water level reached in the 2002 - serve as a reminder of the devastation wrought. But the memories remain and people who lost everything in the floods five years ago, still watch the skies with concern when rain fails to let up for longer periods of time.