Great flood breaches Germany's defences

It's a catastrophe says Kohl, as deluge tests 100-mile wall of sandbags built by 35,000 soldiers
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The Independent Online
The makeshift walls of sand thrown up by German sappers along the country's eastern frontier were crumbling away yesterday, consumed by the most vicious torrent of the century.

As the once sleepy Oder roared in from Poland, the dykes guarding the village of Brieskow gave way, and the streets submitted to the river. The breach was eventually plugged, but inhabitants of the nearby village of Aurith had to be evacuated when another dam burst, and geysers are springing up everywhere behind the barriers. Rescuers fear Brieskow is only a foretaste of things to come.

Less than 10 miles downstream lies Frankfurt an der Oder, an impoverished East German industrial town of 90,000 souls, far removed in distance and wealth from its wheeling-and-dealing namesake by the Main. The waters that have been lashing Poland for the last two weeks are due to peak here today. That is, if the heavens stay as calm as they have been for the past two days.

Yesterday the sun shone again over much of Central Europe, allowing Czechs in Moravia and Poles in Silesia to start sweeping out what remains of their homes. The rivers yielded another eight corpses in Poland, bringing the death toll to 60 there and to 46 in the Czech Republic. More than 1,600 towns and villages were inundated in monsoon-like weather last recorded in this part of the world 500 years ago.

In Poland, 140,000 people had to be evacuated - 62,000 have no home to return to. The Czech Republic was slightly more fortunate with only 10,000 homeless. The damage wrought on the fragile rural economies of the region can only be guessed at for the moment. Vast cornfields have become fish ponds; tens of thousands of farm animals are being swept towards the Baltic.

The Polish government yesterday rushed through a package of measures to help the victims of the floods, promising one-off payments to those affected and a tonne of seed grain for every hectare of land turned into a sea of mud.

The announcement was accompanied by an uncharacteristic apology from the Prime Minister, Wlodziemierz Cimoszewicz, who had earlier comforted farmers with the sentiment that they should have been insured. "I simply say sorry for my inappropriate remark," he said. Mr Cimoszewicz is blamed in some quarters not only for failing to make emergency preparations, but indirectly for causing the inundation of Wroclaw, the capital of Silesia. Officials had wanted to blow up dykes upstream of the city in order to divert the floods into the fields. But farmers, many of them uninsured, lay down on the dykes to prevent the blasts. Wroclaw could not be saved.

No such mistakes are likely to be made in Germany. Chancellor Helmut Kohl rushed to the threatened region yesterday, strolling on the still dry streets of Frankfurt an der Oder and already promising lavish funds for any future victims. "It's a terrible catastrophe for the entire region, for Germany and Poland," Mr Kohl said on his visit to the town.

"The situation is critical, and the people should know that we will do what's necessary. I'm taking care of it. We are organising all imaginable help," he said.

A helicopter was sent to dump sand on a five-metre tear south of Frankfurt an der Oder, said a spokeswoman for the interior ministry in Brandenburg state.

Along the 100-mile long stretch of the rivers Oder and Neisse in Germany, some 35,000 Bundeswehr soldiers have been piling up sandbags for weeks. The mounds have risen as the waters have climbed, staying ahead by just a few inches every day. "If the wall breaks, then all you can do is run," said one soldier.

The rescue services are organised with military precision. The soldiers have been dispatched to any dykes that are endangered. At the same time, fire-fighters dash about switching off electricity and gas, while other forces are in charge of evacuating people from their homes. To prevent an epidemic, thousands of chemical toilets are already waiting outside the gates of Frankfurt just in case the dams burst.