Dutch floods drive 250,000 from their homes

A quarter of a million people were fleeing their homes in the Netherlands last night as rivers swollen by rain threatened to burst through the dykes.

Mocking centuries of human endeavour, the rising torrents bore down on defences along the Rhine, the Waal and the Maas, forcing the evacuation of vast swathes of the Dutch countryside.

Communities in the regions of Land van Maas en Waal and Limburg turned into ghost towns as tens of thousandspacked their possessions on to cars, tractors, trucks and bicycles and joined crawling traffic on roads leading out of the polders.

Fearing a repetition of the great flood of 1953, when a collapsed sea wall led to the death of more than 1,835 people in Zeeland, southern Netherlands, the Dutch government yesterday ordered 140,000 people to abandon their homes.

Most were given two days to leave but the inhabitants of Tiel and Culemborg were told to move immediately. More than 100 buses rounded up residents of the polders and took them to evacuation centres.

But, some farmers have refused to move. "I have 6,000 chickens," one farmer screamed over the telephone to a crisis centre. "I am staying put. You don't get me out."

Swelling rivers in the south have already resulted in about 100,000 people fleeing their homes in the country's biggest exodus for more than 40 years.

"We live hour by hour with the fears, worries and emotions of tens of thousands of citizens," Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister, said in a dramatic parliamentary address that was carried live on national television. "People are leaving their homes and possessions without knowing how and when they will get back to them."

Experts fear that the dykes may not be able to hold out against the mass of rising water. The build-up of pressure on the waterways is being increased by strong winds.

At Lobith, where the Rhine enters the Netherlands from Germany, the water level had risen to 16.66m (54ft 7ins) above sea level by mid-afternoon, above the crest of 16.39m (53ft 9ins) during floods in Christmas 1993. The river is expected to peak today.

Mr Kok said that the government would introduce a new Delta Plan for rivers along the lines of the one that was put in place in the 1980s to protect the country from the sea.

"Now that the danger from the rivers appears even more threatening, we have to give form and content to a new Delta plan," Mr Kok said.

"It is an illusion to think that all risk can be definitively removed," he said. "But we have to do what is reasonable even though we know that the elements will always be stronger than us."

Elsewhere in Europe, the floodwaters were slowly starting to recede. As Germans turned their thoughts to cleaning up the mess, politicians scrambled to find someone to blame for the "rape of the Rhine" that helped cause the second severe flood within 13 months.

Officials in states along the Rhine accused each other of poor management that hadforced the Rhine into an ever-tighter funnel that can easily overflow.

"We have been raping nature for 40 years," said Klaudia Martini, environment minister of Rhineland-Palatinate state, where the Mosel and middle stretches of the Rhine overflowed. "The Rhine is showing us this was wrong."

Cologne's centre was still under about 6ft of water and many neighbourhoods were passable only by boat. "The river is going down about half a centimetre each hour," Cologne's Mayor, Norbert Burger, said. "But it will rise again if we get more massive rains.

Other German cities - including Bonn, Frankfurt, Kob-lenz and Trier - were also flooded. Firemen erected barricades and manned pumps against the Main after water flowed into the cobble-stoned streets of Frankfurt's Old Town.

In France, the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, visited the flood-stricken region of Ardennes, pledging special aid for the victims. Insurers set the total damages across the country at FF2bn-3bn (£250m-£370)

In Charleville-Mezieres, the rising Meuse cut off the rescue operations headquarters and split the city in two. The local prefecture was accessible only by boat, as 3ft-deep water poured over its gardens. Six towns in the region were left without drinking water.

Further south, the swollen Aisne and Oise rivers were putting pressure on Compiegne and threatening the Val d'Oise department, north of Paris. Flood waters in Brittany, Normandy and the Loire valley were reported to be receding.