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Saturday, 17 August, 2002, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Receding river leaves Prague desolate
The receding waters of the River Vltava provide respite to the evacuated residents of Prague
The waters of the River Vltava are gradually receding

I've never seen Prague so beautiful as one night this week.

I was standing on the embankment looking over at Prague Castle, perched high up on a hill on the opposite side of the river Vltava - an enchanting view whatever the weather.

As usual, the castle was basking in illuminations. But this was special.

All around me, there was complete darkness because the street lights had been blacked out by electricity failures.


Surely, I thought, this can't happen. But I was wrong. Many parts of Prague were soon flooded

And below, the usually placid river had been turned into a raging torrent - with a multi-coloured reflection of the castle wobbling all over it.

There was also complete silence. The police had cordoned this area off to stop curious Praguers disrupting their fight against the rising waters. As a journalist, I was a privileged bystander.

The evening had an air of unreality about it, and so did much of what happened this week.

Flood tide

It started off looking like a long, quiet summer. I spent Monday morning moving a new bed into our weekend cottage.

But that same evening, the mayor of Prague announced that 50,000 people would have to leave their beds and be evacuated ahead of a massive flood tide.

I got three hours sleep that night, such was the demand from BBC programmes for live updates.

Emergency workers used canoes during the height of the flood
Emergency workers used canoes in flooded areas
When my wife got up next morning, she could hardly believe it. But shortly after she got to work she called me up to say she was being sent home - her office, you see, is right by the river.

And so our lives adopted a rather strange tempo. She basically got the week off, while I was working round the clock.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you. For she provided me with some tantalising titbits of information about life outside the flood zone.

That day, for instance, she told me that people were panic buying in our local supermarket. "It's worse than before Christmas," she said.

Meanwhile, I was living in what felt like a virtual reality of Prague transformed. On the metro, there were eerie announcements over the tannoy urging people to get out of town.

Thousands of residents were forced to leave their homes
Thousands of residents were forced to leave their homes
Walking across Wenceslas Square, what sounded like air-raid sirens from World War II rang out. And all around, people were filling sandbags.

As I walked along the river banks, along with thousands of other bemused Praguers, it was hard to take seriously.

The water had risen hugely - but was still way below the high stone walls of the embankment.

Evacuated

Surely, I thought, this can't happen. But I was wrong. Many parts of Prague were soon flooded. People who had earlier resisted the call to evacuate now went willingly.

The next day I visited an evacuation centre. In a rather grand 1920s school building, I found people sitting around watching the non-stop flood coverage on television.

Many animals in Prague's zoo did not survive the floods
Many zoo animals died in the floods

The head of the operation showed me around: in the school canteen there was a pile of sandwiches, a large sack of instant soups, and big tin kettles filled with tea.

I wasn't surprised when she told me that most people ate out in the local pubs.

Upstairs, we went into classroom 3C. This would usually contain some rather boisterous nine-year-olds and a hassled looking teacher.

I saw an anxious group of evacuees, lying on stretchers on the floor, also watching the TV.

"They don't have much else to do," my host explained. But the worst thing is that these people have no idea when they'll go home.

The river is now receding, but only slowly. The authorities have hardly begun reconstruction work, and flood-hit areas are still without electricity.

Nevertheless, people are starting to feel some relief here. The tension that was present has faded as the immediate danger has passed.

And now, another titbit from my wife. In a rather sweet gesture, one of her clients telephoned from Slovakia (this country's former federal partner) to say how everyone there was thinking of the Czechs in their hour of crisis.

It's worth noting that as the Czechs start counting the cost of the flood and thinking about how to recover, a huge flood tide started rampaging along the River Danube - threatening to wreak havoc in Slovakia.


European havoc

Germany ravaged

Prague drama

Freak phenomenon?

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TALKING POINT
See also:

16 Aug 02 | Europe
15 Aug 02 | Europe
14 Aug 02 | Europe
13 Aug 02 | Europe
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