Prague flood defences put to test

By Rob Cameron
BBC News, Prague

image captionAnti-flood barriers have been built up

At least four people are now feared dead in the Czech Republic, as heavy rain in the western half of the country continues to cause severe flooding. The Czech government has declared a nationwide state of emergency, Prague's metro system has been shut down and most schools in the capital remain closed.

With the catastrophic floods of 2002 and 1997 still very much alive in people's memories, some Czechs are once again battening down the hatches while others head for higher ground. At midday on Monday the River Vltava in Prague was flowing at 2,815 cu m per second - 10 times its usual volume.

"Last night we went down to look at the river," said Jakub Szanto, who lives in the low-lying Prague district of Modrany.

"The biking and jogging path was underwater. Based on past experience, I moved the car and my motorbike up the hill, emptied the cellar and my wife packed up the kids' things."

"At 03:00, the police started driving past with their sirens on, asking everyone to leave their homes," Mr Szanto told the BBC. His first floor flat is 3m (10ft) above the pavement and 300m from the River Vltava.

"So I emptied the contents of the fridge into a huge box, woke the kids up, told them we were going to play a game called 'Evacuation' and we left for grandma's."

Cautious optimism

So far, Mr Szanto and his family are just one of several hundred families in Prague who have had to leave their homes, as nervous officials watch the river levels rising.

Most schoolchildren have stayed home, and while buses are struggling to replace the suspended metro service in the city centre, the city is still largely functioning as normal.

Swollen tributaries are adding to the Vltava's problems, but the local authorities believe the metal flood defences - installed after the catastrophic floods of 2002 - and the banks of sandbags will hold back the torrent.

The Vltava has peaked so far at 2,840 cu m per second. In the devastation of 2002, the river raged at 5,300 cu m per second. So there are grounds for cautious optimism that the Czech capital - and its unique architectural heritage - will escape the worst.

The historical heart of the city including the iconic Charles Bridge, plus central areas like Karlin, ravaged in 2002 and completely rebuilt at huge cost, look likely to survive more or less intact if - as forecast - the rain eases off on Monday evening.

Animals spared

Prague Zoo, devastated in 2002, is reporting substantial devastation.

Unlike last time, though, all animals have been successfully evacuated - the only reported casualty is a flamingo with a broken leg.

But the director there says the lower part of the zoo, which was meticulously rebuilt after the last flood, could be completely destroyed.

Elsewhere in the country, the situation is more serious. Towns and villages in the wooded hills of South Bohemia, where the River Vltava rises, have been badly flooded.

Western, central and northern Bohemia are all suffering too, with road and rail links severed and many homes ruined. So far there have been two confirmed deaths, with two more people feared drowned and a number of people - including several rafters - missing.

Attention is now turning north, where the Vltava flows into the River Elbe, part of a river system that flows into Germany and onwards to the North Sea.

The low-lying, industrial city of Usti nad Labem is reporting serious flooding, and could be in for a tense night. Other towns along the Elbe - some of which are home to chemical factories and power stations - could also be badly hit.

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