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Until recently a country that has fought its major struggles with the sea had devoted most of its reinforcements to that front. This, after all, is a defensive line that breached disastrously in Zeeland in 1953, resulting in some 1,800 deaths. Although nothing like that calamity afflicted Europe last week--all told, the floods killed about 30 people, including only three in the Netherlands--the Dutch seemed prepared to take no more chances with the river dikes. Built of clay packed around a sand core, the structures in many parts date back to the 13th century. The village of Ochten seemed especially jeopardized as water soaked through the sand interior, releasing telltale flows of brown water.

Emergency personnel deployed to sandbag the walls and line the dikes' river sides with plastic sheeting could only help relieve part of the crisis. In shipshape Dutch style, the evacuation proceeded in a remarkably orderly manner; the notices went out by post. Even so, a bit of unforeseen chaos ensued when some highways became paralyzed with traffic. Seemingly every car and truck that could move was pressed into carrying refugees burdened with cargo ranging from pigs to pianos. Saving livestock put unusual pressures on vehicles and roads. As the exodus progressed, the Ouwehands Zoo in Rhenen, just north of the flood zone, turned into a latter-day Noah's ark. For three days the zoo took in streams of animals, from household pets to ponies, donkeys, pheasants and kangaroos. Custodian Peter van der Eijk reported wearily, ``We're high and dry here, but we're completely full.'' Attic rooms, church lofts and the second floors of still busy taverns up and down northern Europe's waterways were feeling more than crowded as well. Ouwehands' zoo keepers had a relatively simple time. At least the animals were not busy passing the blame.

--Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris, James Geary/Amsterdam, Rhea Schoental/Bonn and Bruce van Voorst/Nijmegen

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