Czech Republic: flood horror surfaces

Published: 22 August 2002 0:00 CET

John Sparrow in Litomerice, Czech Republic

For a while they had almost vanished from the face of the earth. Rooftops and chimneys were the only signs that some of the villages remained. Cesky Kopisty, Nucnicky, Mlekojedy and the others had been lost beneath a torrent of water as the Labe and its tributaries had burst their banks and swept across North Bohemia.

The population's shock has turned to despair as the waters have retreated to reveal the scale of the devastation. Returning to Pocaply u Terezina despite an official exclusion order, Josef Baloun, 73, fought to control his emotion as he searched his home. Almost all he owned lay ruined and overturned beneath a layer of mud and in stagnant water. "What do we do?" he stammered. "I have no money to repair this. I am too old to start over again."

But his house was standing. Many mudbrick dwellings in Pocaply had collapsed, or were so structurally damaged the authorities would have to demolish them. To the south, Zalezlice, near Melnik, resembled a war zone. Of the 120 houses there, a third lay in total ruin and another third, cracked and leaning, would have to be broken down.

The army were camped on the outskirts, and grim-faced conscripts marched through the streets to begin a clean-up operation. A stressed official was shouting down his mobile phone and gesticulating. He had no time for answers.

"How many people lived here?"

"I don't know," he said.

"How many people need assistance?"

"Everybody! Everybody!"

Such scenes were repeated across North Bohemia where towns and villages had been caught in a river pincer movement. At Melnik, about 70 kilometres north of Prague, the Vltava, which devastated the Czech capital, flows into the Labe coming from the east. Zalezlice was caught between them.

Travelling on as an enlarged Labe, these waters head north-west to the Litomerice district where the main stream is joined by the Ohre, and around the flooding confluence a lake formed eight kilometres wide and 20 kilometres long. Here, on what had been the left bank of the Labe 22 villages were inundated, and on the right bank another 16. The town of Terezin went with them, location of an infamous Second World War concentration camp. Streets, homes, business premises, and the Jewish cemetery containing many of the camp's victims were submerged.

The once picturesque Pocaply, proud of its traditional mudbrick houses and 18th-century baroque church from renowned architect Kilian Ignac Diezenhofer, is down the road. Once the village clustered round the church but an 1890 flood persuaded the inhabitants to move their homes back to higher ground. But nothing was beyond this August's tide. The village is ruined. Farmer Jan Hornicek, who left the village in a boat after seeing his livestock to high ground, told of a mass evacuation within a two-hour period. "It came so fast most people left with only a couple of bags and what they were wearing."

Wife Milena, whose family have owned the farm for generations, said their 15 acres and the crops ripening in them, had all been devastated. "We will have no income this year," she said. "Somehow we will have to start again next year."

While farmers face ruin, farmworkers are jobless, and many inhabitants who have low-paid jobs in town and a field from which they make ends meet are wondering how they will survive. Some are even without their town jobs. Many businesses are no longer operating.

This week Milena was coordinating the distribution of Czech Red Cross aid in the village. Throughout North Bohemia the National Society is delivering food, water and other relief to stricken communities, along with disinfectant, brooms, shovels and clean-up materials. Red Cross emergency stocks have been supplemented by a generous public response to local Red Cross appeals.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is responding through a 1.7 million-Swiss-franc preliminary appeal from the International Federation. It aims to assist 450,000 people across Central Europe over the next three months, 250,000 of them helped by the Czech Red Cross, 150,000 by the Romanian Red Cross, and 50,000 by the Slovak Red Cross.

Related links:
15/08/02 - Emergency Appeal
14/08/02 - Flood havoc spreads in Central Europe and Russia