In the narrow streets of the ancient east German town of Halle, students, pensioners and housewives joined rescue workers battling furiously to fill hundreds of blue British Royal Mail sacks with sand, tons of which had been dumped in the city’s main market place.
An almighty struggle was underway to defend the birthplace of Handel from the worst flooding the city has experienced since the composer was born in 1685 – just one town affected by the worst floods central Europe has seen for more than a decade, and which have claimed 16 lives in the past week.
The solidarity of Halle’s citizens in the face of their common enemy was palpable. “I have just come back from looking after my grandchildren,” Anna Ottensen, a woman in her sixties, told The Independent as she grabbed a sandbag and started filling it. “I am damned if I am going to let my home town go under without a fight.”
A rescue worker manning a roaring mechanical pump, expelling hundreds of gallons of filthy black water from a semi-submerged building, explained that the flood defence teams had been packing so many sandbags, they had run out of the usual sacks.
“Somebody donated the British Royal Mail bags which we’ve been using ever since,” he said.
Not five yards away from him, the menace facing Halle and thousands of towns and villages along the River Elbe and its tributaries lay bubbling behind a soggy wall of sandbags. At the end of a street a vast torrent of muddy water sped by, bearing along snapped branches, reeds, bits of tree, and islands of foul-smelling rubbish.
Across the region, 12-mile sections of autobahn were flanked by long walls of white sandbags. Behind them, huge expanses of sludge-brown overspill from the Elbe stretched away into the distance, drowning trees, hedgerows and buildings.
Since they began last weekend, the floods spreading across central Europe have caused billions of euros worth of damage. In the area around Halle alone, authorities told some 30,000 people to evacuate their homes.
In the Czech Republic, as the Elbe reached its highest level there overnight, firefighters said some 700 Czech villages, towns and cities had been hit by the flooding, and some 20,500 people had been evacuated. In the Slovak capital of Bratislava, the Danube was still rising after reaching a record high earlier in the week. As of last night, the floods had killed eight people in the Czech Republic, five in Germany, two in Austria and one in Slovakia.
In Halle, the city’s Saale river, a tributary of the Elbe, had risen 26ft above its normal level after two months’ worth of rain fell in two days. Large sections of the old town remained inundated, with some buildings totally submerged.
The majority of the thousands evacuated have been put up by friends and relatives in surrounding areas, but a few hardy residents have opted to stay. Ursula Heller, a 36-year-old teacher is one of them. She stood, stooped, arranging sandbags around her front door as a pump spewed water out of her sodden front room and cellar. “We are making do with bottled water and candles for the time being. It’s the cleaning up and the damage that are the main difficulties,” she said.
The flood devastation was similar if not worse across broad swathes of southern and eastern Germany. Some 16,000 German troops have been drafted in to build flood defence walls and in some cases blow up dykes to divert floodwater.
In Bavaria, where hundreds of towns and villages have been struggling against flooding from the Danube, a burst dyke almost totally submerged the town of Deggendorf on Wednesday. Hundreds of people were winched to safety by army helicopters after clinging to the roofs of their homes. Rescue workers were riding lengths of the region’s flooded autobahns in rubber boats. And in Dresden, volunteers worked through the night with rescue workers to shore up the city against the rising Elbe. The city experienced devastating damage during massive flooding in 2002 and since then it has invested millions in flood protection measures designed to shield the city’s historic buildings.
Although floodwaters had swept through parts of Dresden’s suburbs, the Elbe failed to reach its 2002 levels. It peaked at 28ft above the normal 6ft depth, but that let residents breathe a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that the worst was over.
However, the flooding is still spreading north along the Elbe and its tributaries and is expected to reach the states of Brandenburg, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern today and over the weekend. Estimates suggest that the floodwaters will continue to pose a threat for the next 10 days.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured flood regions for a second time after promising victims a total of €100bn in aid. But there were already claims that the sum would be totally inadequate.
In Brussels, the European Budget Commissioner announced that emergency funds to help the countries affected had run out. Janusz Lewandowski told a news conference: “The scale of the catastrophe is absolutely beyond the reimbursement possible in these countries.”
In Halle one of the city’s main sources of tourist income is its acclaimed Handel music festival, which was due to start this week. It too has fallen victim to the floods and been called off. Handel’s Water Music has a new resonance.