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Flooded Prague seeks aid to save heritage

Aug. 15, 2002 at 6:40 PM   |   Comments

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- As sewage-choked floodwaters rushed past Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge, Czech Republic Sen. Jaroslava Moserova anxiously worked the phones Thursday in a desperate hunt for money.

Moserova was pleading with UNESCO and governments around the world for the funds needed to clean, repair and restore acres of architectural treasures ravaged by the worst flood in Prague's 1,000-year history.

She said the water damage to palaces, theaters, libraries and other historic gems in the flood plain was far beyond what the federal or municipal governments could afford.

International aid was the only hope to save much of the old city.

Although the floodwaters were still too high for anyone to estimate the monetary loss, Moserova told United Press International the final tally will be "a horrendous sum. We're sure of that. The damage is, no doubt, unprecedented."

The flooding Vltava River, an inspiration for ages of kings and artists, jumped its banks Tuesday at the big bend inhabited ever since tribes and traders settled down centuries before Christ.

The river crested Wednesday and started receding rapidly Thursday, but officials said it could be days before the city's 50,000 evacuees can return and months before a clean up is finished.

For some 40 hours, at least 20 feet of dirty water covered the cobblestone streets of the low-lying Mala Strana district and filled its medieval buildings to the rooftops. Meantime, overwhelmed sewers backed up into basements and streets in the better-protected east bank districts of Josefov, New Town and Old Town.

Hardest hit were the city's island-parks, their massive chestnut trees and the Zofin Palace on Slovansky Island. Although it stood fast against the river, officials fear the 650-year-old Charles Bridge was seriously undermined.

Prague Castle, perched on a high hill, was not harmed. Also spared were the gold-spired Tyn Church, the National Museum, Vysehrad Castle, the Astronomical Clock and Strahov Monastery.

But Prague has literally hundreds of historic landmarks packed along narrow alleys. Indeed, the entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been used for numerous period movies including Les Miserables and Amadeus.

So among the buildings that may have been damaged where places where Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe unlocked astronomy's secrets, Wolfgang Mozart performed and Franz Kafka wrote. The National Library, the Old Jewish Cemetery, the Lichtenstein Palace and the Rudolfinum Theater were in the bull's eye of the flood.

Maserova and Ministry of Culture spokesman Michal Benes said much of the damage would be unnoticeable to the naked eye. Only after time-consuming, careful inspections of foundations and walls would experts be able to determine possible damage, they said.

Moreover, geologists would have to study the ground. Maserova said it's likely the water shifted the soil and rocks on which old Prague was built.

The cresting river failed to reach the first floor of the ornate National Theater. But theater Director Daniel Dvorak said water trickled up through sewers and between cracks in the foundation's ancient walls until the cavernous basement was flooded.

"I hope they can get the water out," Dvorak sadly told Czech Television.

Tomas Jelinek of the Prague Jewish Community said several synagogues, including an 800-year-old structure, were damaged by high water. Cellars filled with water, threatening the old rock foundations. He told the CTK news agency that the world's Jews would be asked to help finance repairs.

Czech President Vaclav Havel also launched an international appeal Thursday. Spokesman Martin Krafl said the president spoke about financial assistance by phone with former U.S. President George Bush Sr., native Czech and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Israeli President Mose Kavac.

On Friday, European Commission President Romano Prodi planned to tour Prague with Havel. So far the commission has recommended about $55 million in emergency aid, but individual governments of Denmark, Belgium, Greece, Poland, France and Italy also promised to rush pumps and other equipment to the Czech Republic.

Although Prague has attracted the most attention, other cultural jewels in the Czech Republic have been tarnished by 10 days of flooding.

The country's oldest bridge -- the 13th century Kamenny Bridge in Pisek -- was overwhelmed by a raging river. And near the Vltava's headwaters, gothic buildings were torn apart in the quaint UNESCO-listed village of Cesky Krumlov.

The federal government has mustered service 5,000 soldiers, tons of emergency supplies and heavy equipment across the country to help victims and begin a cleanup.

Yet the recently installed government of Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla cannot afford much. Earlier this month, the government outlined a 2003 budget plan that includes a $5 billion deficit. The government's finances drew criticism a few weeks ago from the International Monetary Fund.

The government's financial pinch prompted Spidla to draft a flood-emergency spending plan worth only $33 million. Parliament will debate the plan next week.

Maserova, well aware of the government's money woes, said outside financial help was crucial for the future of the historic district. But at this point she hasn't asked for specific amounts of money.

Instead, while on the phone Thursday, Maserova promised to keep possible donors informed about the flood-aftermath, the cleanup and any damage discovered after the water recedes in a few days.

She and other Prague officials are hopeful.

"They are all concerned," she said of the potential donors. "I'm informing them that the damage will be very extensive, and that we shall keep them posted."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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