Dutch spirits rise with a watery sun

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The sun came out over the Netherlands yesterday and the symbolism was not lost on the Dutch. In the medieval town of Gorinchem, on the western edge of the flood danger zone, people took advantage of the break in the weather to visit the Merwede ri ver walk and take in the view of nature gone crazy.

Some came on bicycles; others on foot. They stood on the pavement or sat on benches in the shadow of a windmill and pointed at the high water and smiled at the bare treetops poking out of the river where the houses appeared to be floating in the distance.

Children played underfoot and people laughed. Danger still appeared to be licking at their heels but the people of Gorinchem did not seem to care.

"It's a beautiful day and people feel that it's all over," said Karen de Jong, trying to explain the grins all around her. "I must admit that with the sun, I feel optimistic too."

After days of rain, surging rivers, high winds and mass evacuations of people and livestock, it is easy to understand how a little sunshine might be taken too far. But in this case, the optimism of the people of Gorinchem does not appear to be entirely misplaced.

The rain and the wind have stopped. The Waal and Maas and Merwede rivers reached their highest levels yesterday morning and by the afternoon had already started receding Experts said the rivers could go down by as much as half a metre a day for the next week, baring any unforeseen changes in the weather.

"The worst does appear to be over," said Dick Aanen, the spokesman for the Ablesserwaard water management board. which is responsible for the 180 kilometres of dikes around Gorinchem. "But," he added, "the danger is still there and will last for at leastanother three days. "Until then there will be a constant dike watch."

The continuing threat comes from the pressure of the water piled up behind the dikes. According to Wybren Epema, the chief dike engineer in Gorinchem, it will take at least three days for the pressure on the subsoil underneath the barriers to subside. Until then, the risk of the dikes crumbling remains.

Another problem is that the dikes are so waterlogged that if the river drops faster than the earth mounds can dry out, they could topple and let the flood waters into the low-lying countryside.

Gorinchem's mayor, Piet Ijssels, toured evacuated areas of the town yesterday and said that he hoped things would return to normal in about 10 days, but he was still cautious. "It's better to prepare for the worst than to raise people's expectations and then have to tell them that we were wrong," he said.

Nevertheless, the sun was a welcome sight and offered a big psychological boost for exhausted police and water engineers who for the past six days have been working around the clock reinforcing the dikes, opening and closing sluice gates and just patrolling the area on the lookout for weaknesses in the barriers that could have them swimming in a matter of hours if unchecked.

Until yesterday it was touch and go. Dikes throughout the Netherlands were in danger of crumbling on Wednesday. An additional 150,000 people were evacuated from around Tiel and Ochten that day.

Dike troubles near Tiel worried the officials in Gorinchem. The town's eastern suburbs lie in the path of flood waters from Tiel even though it is 40 kilometres away. If the dikes around Tiel broke, one third of Gorinchem would have been under five metres of water in less than 48 hours.

"On Tuesday, the engineers and the politicians met and there was a feeling that we were in real danger," said Mr. Aanen. "On Wednesday, the seas reached the highest levels, the winds came, the dikes to the east and the south were in trouble and we thought `this is it'. But today the dikes have held, the river has dropped, no winds are anticipated and the sun is shining. There is a sense of relief. Everyone can feel it."

The Full Picture, page 24