Raging Waters

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Last week Prague prepared for war. As sirens wailed, volunteers built sandbag barricades and rescue workers went door-to-door evacuating residents and tourists. Museum curators hurried to secure paintings, rare manuscripts and other precious art objects, while appeals for donations of blood, food and clothing were broadcast over radio and television. Military rescue vehicles took up positions throughout the city.

The residents of Prague were at war with the elements, as a week of heavy rains swelled the Vltava River to 35 times its average flow, swamping the metro system, collapsing apartment buildings, engulfing roads and bridges and displacing some 50,000 people. It was the worst flood to hit Prague in more than a century. But as the waters receded at week's end, the city could claim a major victory. Thanks to a hastily built, 2-km-long floodwall, the historic Old Town — home to such treasures as the Old Town Square, the 15th century Astronomical Clock and the famous Jewish quarter — was largely spared.

Other parts of Europe were not so lucky, as torrential downpours sent floodwaters raging from the Baltic to the Black Sea, killing at least 100 people and causing billions of dollars' worth of damage to buildings, infrastructure and crops. In Austria, a 50-sq-km lake blanketed the Eferdinger Basin, an agricultural area west of Linz, and at least seven people died. In Germany, large tracts of Saxony and Bavaria — including much of Dresden — were submerged, with about a dozen people killed. And in Russia, flash floods and tornadoes along the Black Sea coast razed homes and businesses and killed dozens, many of them holidaymakers. It was the wildest flooding to hit the region in more than a century.

And it left everyone from homeowners to politicians to scientists wondering why it was happening now. Last week's weather doesn't fit the pattern suggested by global warming, which predicts wetter winters and drier summers as temperatures rise. "You won't hear me say it's a sign of global warming," says Vaclav Baca of Povodi Vltavy, the Czech state company that manages waterworks on the Vltava. "It simply rained a lot." Others are not so sure. If climate change is taking place, then researchers would expect more frequent bouts of unexpected and severe storms — and last week's deluge might be an example of this. "It's a case of one swallow doesn't make a summer," says Michael Coughlan, director of the Climate Program at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva. "If you were to start to see more events like this, then you might begin to say we are seeing global warming in action."

Global warming or not, most people's minds are now focused on cleaning up the mess and preventing it from happening again. For the Czech Republic, which has so far escaped the worst of the economic downturn hurting most of Western Europe, the deluge represents a sharp reversal of fortune. Thirteen people died in the floods and 215,000 were evacuated, while the damages may exceed $2 billion, with the country's infrastructure, manufacturing base and tourism industry taking the biggest hits. More than 30 bridges have collapsed, and chemical and paper plants along the Vltava and Elbe Rivers have ground to a halt. The country's GDP growth could slow this year by .3 to .5 percentage points as a result.

A drop in tourism is something the Czech Republic can particularly ill-afford, since vacationing foreigners last year accounted for $3 billion in revenue — some 5.3% of GDP — according to the Czech Tourism Authority. "The situation in southern and northern Bohemia is a catastrophe," said Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda. Vladimir Zunt, spokesman for the town of Cesky Krumlov, described his city — a medieval gem and one of the most popular tourist destinations outside Prague — as "Sodom and Gomorrah," with 2-m-deep holes in the streets and gas and electrical lines ripped out. The government has so far pledged $50 million for flood relief.
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