DRESDEN, Germany: Central Europe’s worst floods in over a decade claimed a 12th victim Wednesday as torrents of muddy water surged down swollen rivers through the Czech Republic and Germany, flooding villages, threatening cities and forcing mass evacuations.
The huge volumes of water from heavy spring rains coming down the mighty Danube and Elbe river systems also sparked mass mobilisations in Austria and threatened future inundations as far away as Budapest.
The floods, which earlier killed eight people in the Czech Republic, two people in Austria and one in Switzerland, claimed their first victim in Slovakia when a body was found in the Danube close to the Gabcikovo dam in the country’s south.
Eastern Germany, where vast areas are already under water, braced for worse to come after the Elbe rose above eight metres (26 feet), six metres higher than usual, with the crest yet to arrive.
About 40,000 firefighters, thousands of volunteers and 5,000 troops, including hundreds of French and Dutch soldiers, have struggled to prevent major disaster, as eight cities and districts declared states of emergency.
“We have to expect the very worst,” warned Till Backhaus, environment minister of northeastern Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state.
“We have to be ready for a highly difficult and complex situation,” he was quoted as saying by news agency DPA.
The biggest fears were centred on Halle in Saxony-Anhalt state, where Elbe tributary the Saale reached its highest level in 400 years and started soaking through dykes, damaging a 200-metre section.
Authorities used loudspeakers as they told 30,000 people to evacuate. A metre of water covered the centre of the city that is the birthplace of baroque composer George Frideric Handel.
The widespread floods, which have turned villages into islands, are the worst since 2002. Homes, businesses and crops have been destroyed, road and rail links severed and vast areas left without power and drinking water.
In the Czech Republic some villages can only be reached by boat and over 19,000 people have been evacuated.
In Germany — where, ironically, the skies were clear after weeks of frequent rain — defences were strengthened around Dresden which was already badly hit by floods 11 years ago.
“The flood preparations since the ‘century floods’ of 2002 are working,” said city spokesman Kai Schulz. “Still, areas to the east of the city are under water. In the past 48 hours alone, more than 1,000 people were evacuated, and there will be more.”
In southern Germany, where the Danube has burst its banks, the Bavarian rural district of Deggendorf was cut off from the outside world, and 6,000 people had been evacuated.
In the Czech Republic, Prague has escaped the worst, but the floods have hit Usti nad Labem, an industrial city 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the German border, where some 3,700 had to flee.
“We’ve lived here our entire life,” said 66-year-old Prague resident Frantisek Hotovy. “We’ll be able to repair and save quite a few things, but what’s important is that we are alive. This is the most important… We hope that such a flood will never happen again.”
The Elbe was also threatening several chemical plants. In Lovosice, 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Prague, fertiliser maker Lovochemie said dangerous chemicals had been moved, and managers were considering a controlled flooding to prevent worse damage from a sudden surge of flood water.
In Austria, emergency services evacuated some 1,500 people — with some elderly people being lowered out of windows into inflatable rescue boats — and filled sandbags weighing a combined 18 tonnes to contain the Danube’s raging waters.
Five hunters trying to rescue animals from the Danube near the town of Mautern had a lucky escape after their boat capsized. All were plucked from the treacherous cold waters by helicopter.
Franziska Doerfel, 20, was rescued from the rising current as she was about to give birth, the Heute daily reported. Little Lina Sophie — dubbed the “flood baby” — was delivered safely in an ambulance.
Farther downriver along the Danube, in Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, sightseers flocked to snap photos of the roaring flood crest.
A woman who gave her name only as Zuzana, 30, was precariously bending over a flood barrier to take pictures and said: “I’m not afraid, a little adrenalin never hurt anyone.”