Besieged And Deluged

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About half the population of Europe lives along rivers, but suddenly water was the bane of the Continent. Fed by torrential rains, floods from the Black Sea to the Baltic took roughly 100 lives, left thousands homeless and caused billions of dollars' worth of damage to the farms, cities and hamlets of Central and Eastern Europe. Prague looked like a city under siege. Military rescue vehicles rumbled down the Czech capital's flooded streets, in which soldiers, firemen and volunteers labored to rescue stranded citizens and keep the Vltava River, which winds through the city, from destroying architectural treasures. They succeeded, but only partly. The barriers they erected saved the famous Old Town, but the river broke through the opposite bank, inundating Mala Strana — one of the world's finest baroque preserves. Water also tore through Cesky Krumlov, leaving a reeking trail of flotsam and sludge in the town's elegant Renaissance buildings.

In Austria the deluge caused an estimated $3 billion in damage, transforming the Eferdinger basin, a valley dotted with vegetable farms, into a 20- sq.-mi. lake. Saxony bore the brunt in eastern Germany, where a television station broadcast footage of an elderly woman plunging more than 30 feet into the roiling floodwater when rescuers attempted to airlift her out of danger; she later died in the hospital. Dozens of patients in Dresden's hospitals, including a day-old, 1-lb. 8-oz. baby, had to be evacuated by car and helicopter. With the Elbe River rising to its highest level in history, rescuers worked frantically to move thousands of paintings, including Raphael's Sistine Madonna, from the flooded basement of the baroque Zwinger Palace.

Germany's leaders, who are in the midst of a heated election campaign, were quick to exploit the disaster for political ends. Environment Minister Jurgen Trittin patted himself on the back for a progressive emissions policy while blaming global warming for the wacky weather — a connection that is debatable when it comes down to any specific calamity. What experts do agree on is that industrial farming, deforestation and the loss of meadows have reduced the ground's ability to absorb water, which probably contributed to the severity of the floods.

The most lethal of Europe's recent disasters, however, was unrelated to the storms that so devastated Central Europe. Tourist settlements near the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk were hit Aug. 8 by tornados and flash floods that destroyed 424 houses and killed 59 people. The death toll there is expected to climb as rescuers get to cars washed away by the floods or crushed by falling trees and buildings.