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FIFTY YEARS AFTER WORLD WAR II, SOMETHING LIKE BLITZKRIEG returned to Nijmegen last week. Dutch soldiers swarmed around the city while low-flying helicopters thundered overhead. Sirens pierced the air as police cars escorted emergency crews and equipment into town. The scenes reflected the kind of combat the Dutch know best: struggling with the elements. This time, in a country wrested largely from the sea, nature's attack arrived by way of the less fortified back door. At Nijmegen's Jan Massink sports center, a sports club where 350 evacuees had bedded down on the gymnasium floor, factory worker Jan Hooyman, 40, explained the danger sign. ``When clear water appears at our doorstep, that's O.K.,'' he said. ``But when we see brown water, we know that's the dike giving way.''

Clear, brown or in between, water in tidal-wave volumes was sloshing over the banks of the Rhine and other major rivers, drowning vast stretches of northwestern Europe. In a week when happiness was a dry attic, a crow flying over the countryside would have needed not only its own rations but pontoon landing gear. Torrential rains had combined with unseasonable melting of Alpine snows to surcharge waterways funneling into the Low Countries. Though the Dutch remained mostly dry, the largest evacuation ever mobilized in the Netherlands cleared 250,000 people from their homes in Gelderland and Limburg, two southern provinces where 550 km of dikes were straining to burst at critically weak points. A placid landscape of willows and windmills threatened abruptly to become Apocalypse Now: if the dikes go, the lives and savings of tens of thousands of people would be swept away. Almost all the embankments were holding as last week ended, but a red alert persisted. Saturation had made the dikes top heavy and even more unstable as water levels subsided. As soldiers continued to rush sandbags into otherwise deserted southern towns, authorities put together emergency plans for bolstering the shakiest bulwarks more permanently. ``Holland has a long history and a great reputation when it comes to defending ourselves against the sea,'' Prime Minister Wim Kok reminded Parliament. Now that the rivers seemed at least as great a peril, he declared, ``we must show what we're worth in this regard as well.''

The Dutch crisis was most dire, but Europeans elsewhere were also scrambling to escape the second epic deluge in 13 months. Upriver, in Germany, the Rhine rose to 10.69 m at Cologne, equaling the century's record height dating from 1926. Overflows turned the riverside Altstadt, or old town, a tourism and entertainment quarter, into a Venice North. Murky waters gurgling through the medieval byways filled the basement of the Philharmonic Center. Still, the music managed to triumph. Pumps labored through the evening to keep the concert hall dry, and the orchestra, like the band on the Titanic, played on.

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