Central Europe: The Sunken Treasure

Months of continual rainfall has thrown much of Central Europe into chaos

News | Daniel Gloeckler | July / August 2010

This past month’s weather has been a fortune teller’s nightmare; in fact, the previous two volcanos in Iceland, another two in Ecuador and Guatemala, a month long oil spill, all wreaking general havoc seem like the apocalyptic prophesy come true, echoing in shameless vengeance: I told you so.

For once there is nothing arrogant about preferring to be fashionably late.

The seasonal proverb "April showers bring May flowers" has now been redefined; no sooner have you headed out to enjoy the blooms of early summer than a heavy shower of rain plummets down sending you running for shelter. At one subway station people go about their day, oblivious to what is happening; just one stop further away, people are rushing around with newspapers pressed wet against their head, umbrellas turned inside out, as if there was any point in protecting the few spots that still remained dry.

However, this is but a shadow of what Central Europeans have had to deal with; Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine – all have all been affected by the resent flooding, with the Czech Republic and Hungary’s experiences among the most severe. However, since the initial reports, flood levels in Poland, too, have reached epic proportions. Some experiencing the fullest force of the floods have lost their lives in the process – including one in Germany, where severe weather killed a six-year-old, as a tornado and a hailstorm forced itself through Grossenhain; there was one death in the Czech Republic, two in Hungary, Serbia and Slovakia, and three in Austria. Deaths in Poland have now reached nineteen. Many have fled their homes and lost acres of crops to the continual rainfall.

Czech Republic

In the Czech Republic, the heavy rains have been concentrated in the north and east of the country. Several bodies of water, including the March and Oder in the Zlínský and Moravskoslezský region burst their banks along with smaller tributary rivers including the Becva, Jizinka, Ostravice, and Petruvka, where a state of emergency was declared in late May, that continued into June.  Arial footage of the Czech countryside looked like an endless desolate swamp, water covering the terrain as far as the eye could see; graveyards and tiny communities were blanketed by calm grey water, the only detail the deep red shingles on the roofs. Smaller rivers have swelled so much since the floods that they have become one with neighbouring rivers engulfing massive green open fields to create a vast lake. The stillness of the scenery lends an eerie impression to the surroundings, as if it had been forcibly abandoned years before.

To the average eye, the rivers just keep flowing endlessly; however in a matter of hours they rose drastically. On May 17, the flooded Strážnice regions of the River March was recorded to have 444 cm high with a river discharge (the speed of the current) of 361 m³/sec  at 8:00 in the morning. According to officials, the usual height of the water is 210 cm and its speed 59.6 m³/sec. Even without an inspection of every town, these levels guaranteed that homes all across the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and others were being swept away and lives lost. Less surprisingly, only six to seven hours later both measures had doubled further down the river, to a water level of 700 cm and a flow of 713 m³/sec.

The weather seems to have a morbid sense of humor as with all the damage it has caused, the 754 cm record of the river was never broken.

Water currents of the same nature have made numerous roads impossible to drive on, including the D1 highway between Ostrava and Bohumín causing the far-eastern city Karivná to be completely cut off from the world around it. Here, the city is rich with mining opportunities, allowing a local company OKD to donate 39,000 euros to flood victim, which the company said was intended as  "a sign of good faith" showing that they could be relied on not only in good times but also bad.

The Czechs seem to be more fortunate, as British units stationed in the Czech Republic for the Flying Rhino 2010 - a military exercise of forward air controllers (FAC) - since May 3 at a base in Námešt’ nad Oslavou, south Moravia, offered helicopters to move those who are stranded. Along with the British-proposed help, the Czech government assigned 800 of its own soldiers for flood clean up detail, and declared a state of emergency in the regions; tens of thousands of people in both northern and central Moravia had to be evacuated, thousands of houses have been left without electricity and roads and railways have been closed.


Regions throughout northern and north-eastern Hungary, including Budapest, have been declared in a state of emergency. The capital has experienced what has been declared a record flood, due to the over flowing of nearly all the Central European rivers, including the Danube and the Tisza. Since the recent floods of 2002, the Danube has not risen as high as now, from 8.48 meters, it rose to a new 8.58 meters, flooding roads, rail and tramlines along the Danube. Efforts to combat the floods were concentrated in four areas: north Hungarian rivers, Central Hungarian Great Plains, Valley of the Kapos River, and the Bakony Mountains in Trans-Danubia.

The capital itself lay beaten, as aggressive winds managed to break trees rendering power lines and cars destroyed, and freezing traffic and safe passage.  While the dangers of the risen Danube persisted, Budapest’s mayor Gábor Demszky urged drivers to use public transportation during the crisis; however, the aftermath has kept the countryside paralyzed, as for many other countries.

Television footage confirmed that catastrophes can happen simultaneously across Central Europe’s many villages. A market plaza near Lake Balaton, shot from different angles, shows oak outdoor furniture polished in glaze and stacked up top each other, behind them shut doors with closed signs hanging from within. Through the mazes of benches and tables, currents of water force itself through and across fences to neighbouring plazas; the grey currents seemed to never end. Frail sandbag are passed to one another by locals to make dams; all that keep an even stronger current from rushing throw the streets.

In all of Hungary over 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes as of early June, and over 11,500 houses were in danger of being flooded, which would have affect another 32,600 people.

Cities in north-western Hungary included Székesfehérvár, Tatabánya, and Veszprém all popular routes to the capital when travelling from Vienna. On the side of the highway one cannot help but compare the flooded crops to that of an idle river, when in fact acres of crops are dying beneath the overgrown puddles, claiming 22 million Euros worth of crops.

A section of the M1 highway near Györ, just 124 km west of Budapest collapsed, leaving only a gaping hole on the road as the overwhelming current continues to force its way underneath it. The waters broke away at the earth underneath the motorway leaving the road too weak to support itself.

Much like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have many villages floating in water, with living conditions unbearable unbearable for those that remained.

Much assistance has been offered Hungary by providing sandbags. Germany has offered to help by donating 1.27 million sand bags, including another 100 000 sandbags from both the Netherlands and Croatia and 300,000 from Denmark. Austria and the Czech Republic managed to donate another 250,000 and 100,000 sandbags during their time of crisis as well, respectively.


In Poland, misery seems to have moved in for an extended stay. Following the plane crash in April killing the country’s president Lech Kaczynski and many of the country’s top officials, Poland has suffered by far the worst from the violent flood conditions. And as if Poles haven’t been through enough, the flooding are only expected to worsen in the future and already there is talk that many hare close to the breaking point. The very word Poland has become coupled with misfortune.

Near the capital Warsaw, eighteen villages were victims to repeated flash floods, each time less and less bearable. Still, that is just a fraction of Poland’s underwater territory. The flooding escalated significantly on May 20 after the Vistula river overflowed and spread to the town of Sandomierz, leaving residents stranded and without power. Across Europe this flood has trumped any previous ones, including Vistula’s  last major flood in 1997.

The human costs are complex: Fearing theft, many refuse to leave their homes despite police warnings. Another worry is protecting the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site. The floods have endangered many archives and artefacts, including brushes and bowls that belonged to victims. Such irreplaceable objects were sent the upper floors of the old barracks or transported to safer locations. Jaroslaw Mensfelt, spokesman to the site admits this is the first time that the site was closed to visitors.

Poland has ask for help from other EU nations, out of whom France, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have sent supplies such as sandbags, the Czech Republic, despite their own problemsm has sent aid workers to both Poland and Hungary.

"I expect the losses will top €2 billion euros and I know we will have to find more funds," Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters during a tour of the worst affected regions.

Thus it is a surreal being in Vienna, relaxing at Stadtpark or Burggarten while drinking some crisp beer from the dark blue Wieselburger can enjoying the cold complementary feeling of my thirst being quenched while enjoying the warm sunrays. Only a few kilometres away, a storm that only sprinkles Vienna and entertains it with sounds of thunder from a safe distance, is ravaging the countries to the east.

In Hungary there is a proverb that says that when rain falls during the sunshine, the devil is hitting his wife. Could it be that the fallen angel has lost his nerve?


See also: Chaos Continues in Poland

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