Chaos Continues in Poland

Only a month after the tragic death of Lech Kaczynski, the floods have crippled the country with no one in charge

News | Kamil Kluczynski | July / August 2010

Only a month after the tragic death of Lech Kaczynski, Poland is once again in chaos.  In the seemingly endless rain showers throughout the months of May and June rivers throughout the country have overflowed their banks.  In their wake, villages and parts of cities have been submerged and thousands left homeless.

"Without precedent in the last 160 years" is how Prime Minister Donald Tusk described the floods standing in front of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Parliament.  This statement is indeed fitting as the government has estimated the damage to exceed 10 billion zloty (€2.5 billion).

The floods have killed 25 people and forced 23,000 people to evacuate.  The military joined the fire department and police in the evacuations.  Efforts to hinder the flooding with walls of sandbags was ultimately in vain, as the water breached and flooded the surrounding areas.

The Vistula River, Poland’s longest and most important waterway has caused the most damage.  Overflows from this river have affected the country’s bigger cities like Warsaw and Cracow.  In Warsaw, a state of emergency was declared as the water level reached 780 cm.  The last time the Vistula reached water levels this high was over 150 years ago.

"It was cataclysmic," stated Jerzy Miller, Minister of the Interior Ministry, as he described the situation in Cracow.  Here, where the floods began before moving north, the water levels exceeded all others.  The Vistula river reached a record water level of 956cm.

The worst damage was done to Sandomierz, which lies on the Vistula about 100km northeast of Cracow. There the Vistula crossed the 610cm state of emergency barrier by 2,5 meters, forcing 4,000 people to be evacuated from their homes.

In the already chaotic conditions, the government has scrambled for a response. This has been next to impossible without a head of state: A plane crash on May 10 stripped the country’s leadership class, killing Polish President Lech Kaczynski, heads of key governmental offices and all the heads of the military in an instant.  Efforts to run a successful presidential campaign have been hindered but the extreme flooding, while affected regions have complained that the presidential election has taken priority over helping those left homeless.

Presidential candidates Bronislaw Komorowski, the acting temporary President, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Lech Kaczynski twin brother, deny accusations of inattention to the suffering.  However, Prime Minister Donald Tusk has refused to call a nationwide state of emergency, as it would have pushed back the June 20presidential elections another month and a half.  Polling stations were opened in flooded regions despite the damaged infrastructure.

The floods also come at a time when Poland was preparing for the EURO 2012 European Cup Soccer Championships, to be hosted jointly with Ukraine. Enormous efforts and money are being committed to keep preparations on track.  Concerns had already been raised about the viability of the cooperation; the floods only make it harder.

As I drive around the city of Warsaw, walls of sandbags surround the construction site of the opening stadium; in spite of the disaster, construction is running 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week. Funds for these preparations could run dry if extra help does not come from the European Union or elsewhere. Aid has already come from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, France, Germany, and the Czech Republic, even though the last had its own problems with flooding.  The Czechs contributed not only equipment but also rescue workers.  The damage that has exceeded the minimum €2 billion qualifies Poland for EU crisis funds, expected at about €100 million even with the financial crisis.

The results of the Jun. 20 elections have failed to give a clear majority, and a second round of voting will be needed. Prolonging the election will force Poland to reassess its priorities, juggling a renewed presidential campaign, recovery from the recent catastrophic floods, and ongoing preparations for the EURO 2012 – all without a head of state to make the most important decisions.


See also: Central Europe: The Sunken Treasure

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