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Citizens piled up 330,000 sandbags to seal off doors, windows, garages and cellars. Altogether, six German states along the Rhine, Main, Mosel and Nahe were engulfed by the rampaging rivers, barely more than a year after the Christmas 1993 floods. From Bavaria to the Dutch border, the washouts brought normal riverside life almost to a standstill and kept the Bundeswehr busy deploying rescue teams in rubber dinghies. Waters lapped at the doors of Bonn's new parliament building, and smaller sections of Frankfurt were also overrun. Shipping was suspended entirely along the lower reaches of the Rhine, the world's busiest inland waterway. In Koblenz the river rose to 9.27 m and surrounded the newly restored bronze statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I. The Emperor's bronze likeness appeared to be riding a sea horse.

The most extensive overflows hit France, where flooding to one degree or another occurred across almost all of the country's northern half. The Meuse, or Maas to German and Dutch speakers, topped off at 6.15 m above its normal level and spread in some places 3 to 4 km beyond its banks in the waterlogged Ardennes. At least 3,000 houses were inundated in Charleville-Mezieres, the site of widespread damage just 13 months ago. Citizens passing a bronze plaque defining the 1993 high-water level watched the Meuse gradually reach and swallow the marker last week.

Currents were so strong in parts of the city that outboard motors strained uselessly--an oddly fitting trial for the birthplace of Arthur Rimbaud, one of whose most famous poems was Le Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat). In the calmer Charleville streets of Rimbaud's boyhood district, swans cruised nonchalantly like grand seigneurs inspecting their expanded watery estates. Downstream in Belgium, the Meuse overpowered a number of evacuation efforts in the town of Dinant. Householder Tony Delussu was exasperated after two floods. ``I'd just finished putting new wallpaper in my living room,'' he explained. ``I won't stay around the Meuse any more. It's over--I'm leaving.''

In addition to melting snows, what swamped the Continent's richest countries under the century's highest water levels was a persistent stream of warm air blowing off the Atlantic and producing marathon rainfalls. Last month Belgium received more than three times its normal amount of rain. From the Rhine to the Loire and the North Sea, France too has been battered by Niagara-like downpours. Normandy and Brittany got almost one-third of their average annual rainfall from Jan. 17 to 28. In Rennes, the Breton capital, showers dropped an astonishing 70 liters of rain per sq m in a 24-hour span of Jan. 22 to 23, breaking a 111-year record.

Paris, in all events, managed to keep its skirts above water. Although the Seine swelled 4.92 m higher than its normal level, the flow blocked only some riverside expressways and prompted the closure of some tunnels under the river as a precaution. But the exemption did not mean that Paris was ignoring the ordeals going on around it. The world's heaviest concentration of chattering raisonneurs were quick to join critics in the Low Countries and Germany to point the finger of blame. In their view, the great flood's archvillain was a usual suspect: overdevelopment.

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