CZECH FLOODS

PRESS RELEASE - 16th August 2002

 

The Czech Republic has fallen victim to the worst floods for 200 years. The river Vltava has swept straight through towns and cities from Cesky Krumlov in the South, through Ceske Budejovice, on into the Capital, Prague and north through Terezin and Usti Nad Labem.

So far 10 people have died, whole areas of the Czech capital are still underwater, 40,000 people were evacuated and many areas remain without electricity or gas.

The transport system is in chaos with 8 metro stations closed by flood water, the main bus station Florenc submerged and only 2 bridges open to traffic.

Many food outlets and pharmacies are running low on supplies and in particular the hospitals are announcing a shortage of blood for transfusion purposes.

The famous Prague Zoo at Troja could only be partially evacuated and an array of gorillas, elephants, bears and hippos were lost, seals escaped into the murky waters and zoo staff had their time cut out rescuing hundreds of flamingos.

BRIDGWATER SETS UP FLOOD RELIEF FUND

The Somerset town of Bridgwater has strong links with many towns in the Czech Republic and is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary of co-operation with the former Czechoslovakia. Bridgwater was the first British town to twin with a Czech town after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Chairman of the Bridgwater Czech Slovak Friendship Society Cllr Marilyn Wallace, says "People have been contacting us to ask what they can do to help and so we have decided to set up a Czech Flood Relief fund. Anyone wishing to make donations can send it to us c/o Sedgemoor District Council, Kings Square Bridgwater TA6 3AR. Cheques should be payable to 'Bridgwater Czech Slovak Friendship Society".

Bridgwater has particularly strong links with Ceske Budejovice - which is currently underwater and Prague from where the Administrator of the Friendship Society, Cllr Brian Smedley, sent this report.

FLOOD DIARY

"I have been in the Czech Republic for the past 8 days as organiser of a tour by Somerset Musicians 'Sgt Peppers Only Darts Board Band' (a Beatles tribute band) and therefore have witnessed the whole catastrophe.

The bands tour was due to start in Ceske Budejovice but this was hit by the first wave of floods, the concerts cancelled and the band had to move on. The rivers Vltava and Malse meet in the centre of the town and both banks collpased flooding the main square.

The Unesco nominated town of Cesky Krumlov - near the start point of the Vltava, was hit by a massive flood tide and the people evacuated to the Castle. Several historical buildings were washed away and there was no drinking water for several days.

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On Tuesday 13th the band moved to Prague just as the the city was being evacuated. Both Prague gigs were quickly cancelled. The Riverside 'located' Karlovy Lazne - one of Europes top night spots, and where many Somerset bands perform on our Czech tours, was quickly flooded whilst the famous Lucerna Ballroom in Wenceslaus Square was ordered to close as the electricity in the Old Town was turned off hence both gigs were also off.

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To compound problems, the bands coach was looted overnight as thinly spread Police resources had to be concentrated on the riverside area. On Wednesday 14th the band had had enough and drove home.

I remained in Prague to be with our Czech Friends many of who were quickly falling victim to the rising waters.

In Ceske Budejovice, our key organiser Eva Kordova had to be evacuated from her canalside home and the family of our Czech Secretary David Pribyl had their house inundated by flood water. Our Treasurer Martina Chvostova was cut off in Strakonice in South Bohemia while her friend Vladka Lachova woke up to find she had lost her newly opened hairdressing salon in Holesovice - which was also where long time member Bela Lukasova was evacuated from her house - on the main bend of the river in Prague, which was totally underwater within minutes of the Vltava breaking its banks.

Stories of heroism and idiocy were rife - elderly people refusing to leave their homes and being winched from rooftops by helicopter or rescued by boat from windows halfway up skyscrapers, 2 firemen dying of heart failure in the fast flowing icy waters, and one headcase jumping in his kayak and surfing the flood - only to be rescued by emergency services when he capsized.

From next to the National Theatre, I watched the river rise metre by metre as flood waters were released in stages from the vast network of dams that were meant to save Prague. By the afternoon of the 14th the central Islands were still visible but by evening all were submerged. The Kampa district - on the Castle side of the river - was completely flooded with only the rooftops visible of buildings such as Stalety baby - where Bridgwater tour groups often dined - and even on the right bank the riverside restaurant Manes, scene of many concerts by the Czech swing band the 'Backside band'' who often play there for Somerset guests, was battered by the flood waters with the concert hall completely submerged.

On the morning of the 14th the constant driving rain had stopped but the river continued to rise and I was with a group of people next to the Manes bank when the waters came over the metal barrier and everyone rushed to reposition sandbags in order to divert the water into an underground subway and save the surrounding streets. Unfortunately this saw the ancient basement of the National Theatre now inundated by flood water. Less tragic was the fact that my own shoes had now become inundated by virtue of an ill timed hole - hence I am now on my 13th pair of socks and feel like I have trench foot!

Despite constant reports from foreign media saying the Old Town Square was underwater, this never actually happened. I was in the historical centre of Prague at the height of the flood and can assure people it wasn't reached. Water in fact did encroach into the cellars below the old town and many streets were cordoned off with Police guards on them.

Although there has been chaos caused by the closure of many Metro stations the trams have been running and in fact have been free - this has had the effect of filling them up constantly as tourists go on 'flood sight seeing tours'.

On the day of writing - Friday 16th August - the waters have started to go down 8 cm an hour as the river continues its devastating course to the North of the republic - now the sun is shining and in most parts of Prague you wouldn't guess there was a major catastrophe around the next corner. Occasionally sirens scream and Police, military and fire service vehicles skid noisily around the main streets . Helicopters buzz overhead and thunderous bangs from the river herald the arrival of something large hitting a bridge.

As I look across the river from Revolucni street near Republic Square flood waters lap at the edges of side streets and kids are cycling into them for fun. Meanwhile across the river you simply can't see Holesovice anymore. The 14th century Charles Bridge is controlled by cranes and bulldozers in an attempt to stop large waterbound obstacles hitting it and damaging it. One boat that broke its moorings had to be sunk by Czech commandos before it hit a bridge.The famous astrological clock in Old town square was stopped at 10.55 and the historical archives from the Klementinium were rescued at the last minute before the cellars were inundated.

One of the biggest concerns amongst our Czech friends is the considerable potential for environmental disaster. The Water purifying plant is now underwater and at least one chemical factory has released considerable ammounts of mercury into the river.

Today the floods are going down but other parts of the country are still suffering or waiting. The Slovak Capital Bratislava has erected un-tested anti-flood barriers which it hopes will hold back what could be the biggest tidal wave in 500 years on the Danube.

Already the Authorities are throwing up their arms at the potential costs involved - The Daily paper Halo Noviny has predicted at least 100 milliard crowns and has suggested postponing the November NATO summit in Prague and using that money for flood relief. The country was hit by disastrous floods in 1997 after which the Government set up a flood emergency fund - but this has already been rendered totally inadequate. The whole restoration process will have a devastating effect on the economy - currently in overdrive in order to meet convergence criteria for joining the EU in 2004.

As with the 1997 floods one of the biggest problems will be cleaning up afterwards - but this is being compounded by the fact that although the river is going down to its normal levels many areas are now unusually waterlogged - the metro system alone could take up to 6 months to be fully operational again.

The Czech Government has been receiving offers of help from all over the world and quite clearly theres people in Somerset with an attachment to the country who will also want to help the Czechs recover hence I would ask people to support our new Czech Flood Relief Fund which we will direct via our Czech partner organisations to the areas of most need.

Brian Smedley
Prague
16.8.2002

All pictures Copyright 2002 Martin Dimery

 

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