Last year's catastrophe was described as the flood of the century. Now, 13 months later, we again have the flood of the century - but worse. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in Western Europe after a week of torrential rain. At least 24 deaths were reported as a result of the storms and flooding: 16 in France, six in Belgium and two in Germany. Five people are missing in France. Forecasters predict more rain. In the Netherlands the biggest civilian evacuation for more than 40 years was under way last night. Sixty-five thousand people in the eastern province of Gelderland were told to flee the swollen Rhine and 9,000 have been evacuated in Limburg, along the Maas. Roads were clogged as cars, buses and army trucks headed out of the area.
At Lobith, where the Rhine enters the Netherlands from Germany, the level had risen to 16.48m above sea level, exceeding the crest of 16.39m in the last serious flooding, over Christmas in 1993. The record was 16.93m in 1926, when thousands of people drowned.
The French government said 40,000 homes had been destroyed and that 800 roads had been damaged. In Paris, roads along the Seine have been closed for days, causing traffic chaos. The government said it would provide emergency financial aid to victims of flooding in the north-east of the country. "In many areas we are talking about the flood of the century," said the office of the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, said in a statement. "Nearly half the country has been affected." Concern also grew that high tides expected along the Atlantic coast could make the situation worse.
In Cologne yesterday the water-level rose above last year's peak. Much of the old town has been flooded since the weekend. In Koblenz, where the Moselle and the Rhine meet, thousands of homes are without phone links or electricity. In Bonn, some parliamentary offices have been evacuated. The deaths in Germany included that of a three-year-old child.
A stretch of railway running along the Rhine south of Bonn has been closed and all ordinary boat traffic has been banned along the worst-affected stretches. The closure of a motorway near Mainz led to commuter chaos yesterday.
There has been much anger at the crowds that come to gaze at the misfortunes of others but the bitterness of the flood victims is directed less against the gapers than against the authorities. There is criticism of the fact that the authorities again seemed to be taken by surprise, despite the experience of 1993. Emergency walls have been built and sandbags piled up, but it is only now that plans are seriously being discussed for preventing such devastating floods in the future.
There is little that any single government can do to prevent global climate change, which is widely blamed - rightly or wrongly - for contributing to the problem.
But there is much discussion about creating new areas of overflow land which can reduce the dangers of flooding.Even amid the catastrophe a kind of routine has been created. Flooded-out friends, the top of whose house now pokes forlornly out of a lake, have come to stay in the Independent's apartment, perched safely above the Rhine. In normal times, our friends' house is several hundred metres from the riverbank. Now they can return only with the army's boat-shuttle service or in a private dinghy which can be paddled from the back gardens of the next street up the hill. Even the postman still comes to call: a special plastic bin has been left in a neighbour's garden which receives mail for several houses on the stre. At Christmas 1993 the flood came suddenly. This year, there was earlier warning, which means that - theoretically, at least - valuable items could be removed. But, for many, the losses will be enormous.
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