Wounded, flooded Prague relives its past

By ERIC JOHNSON  |  Sept. 12, 2002 at 7:12 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter
Sign up for our Security newsletter

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- Life in Prague has slowed since floods devastated Central Europe one month ago.

The pace is so slow that, in many ways, this city of gold-tipped spires and cobblestone alleys has been swept right back to its medieval roots.

Four weeks after the water began to recede, bridges and streets in the historic city center remained closed Thursday. The downtown subways are silent, hard-hit neighborhoods are still without power, gas and phones, and thousands of people remain homeless.

Mayor Igor Nemec and the Czech Republic's foreign ministry have urged tourists to return to the city after hundreds of thousands fled during the height of the holiday season, noting for example that the 14th century Charles Bridge has reopened for pedestrians and the hilltop Prague Castle stayed dry.

But the normally busy cafes are eerily quiet, horse-drawn buggies sit idly on Old Town Square, shops are empty and cellar-drying machines drone on the sidewalks usually crowded with tour groups. Czech Airlines said its passenger traffic is off 50 percent.

The ghost-town atmosphere is worse in hundreds of communities north and south of Prague on rivers such as the Vltava, Labe and Otava. The overflowing rivers claimed 17 lives and caused damage topping $3 billion nationwide. Several villages were obliterated, and farms in one area near Prague were contaminated with toxins from a flooded chemical plant.

Nemec has pegged his city's losses at $300 million, but admits the cost will continue climbing for months. Indeed, much of the damage is still being assessed, and the cleanup and reconstruction process is proceeding slowly due to the enormity of the task.

For example, hundreds of flood-damaged apartment buildings in the riverside Karlin district have been empty for weeks, their inhabitants scattered in emergency shelters or with relatives around the city. Officials planned to reopen the district Friday, but so far three large buildings have collapsed and it's unclear how many others have been roped off by building inspectors.

The flooded zoo reopened last week, but spokesman Vit Kahle said rebuilding will take about two years. And the city is mourning the victims including four hippos, a gorilla, lion, bear and elephant. A sea lion named Gaston who escaped and swam 400 kilometers before being recaptured in Germany died on the way back to Prague.

Nothing reflects life's old-fashioned pace like the hobbled transportation system. Five bridges are closed to most cars and trucks. Slow-moving trams are now the main alternative for the 40 percent of the city's commuters who used to ride Metro subway trains. Officials say the Metro may be closed until Christmas, and the recent collapse of the largest station Mustek has complicated an enormous underground repair project.

Book collections in the city's libraries, universities and government agencies suffered significant damage. Thousands of wet books and historic documents were pulled from the swamped Academy of Sciences philosophy library, the military archives and other buildings and immediately packed in freezer boxes to await restoration. But the government said this week that the restoration work was too expensive, and many books would have to be destroyed.

Neither is it a pretty picture for Prague's art scene. The lights are still out in dozens of concert halls, music clubs, galleries and theaters damaged by the high water.

Following appeals from President Vaclav Havel and others, the world has scrambled to help the Czech capital get back on its feet. Aid in the form of cash and supplies came from across Europe, Japan and the Americas. The United States adopted the swamped Mala Strana neighborhood, and British supporters plan a benefit concert at London's Royal Festival Hall later this month.

Thursday, France's capital city sent two truckloads of medical supplies to Prague. "Prague gave a helping hand to Paris when a windstorm hit three years ago... and the city of Paris remembers it," said the Czech ambassador to France Petr Janyska.

But even the world's generosity won't be enough.

On Friday, the Czech parliament was expected to vote on Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla's proposal for raising flood-reconstruction funds by increasing taxes on upper-level incomes, food and alcohol. He also plans to use proceeds from the planned sale of the phone company and other state-controlled companies.

If the tax package fails, Spidla's cabinet is ready to increase the government's $5 billion deficit, which has been criticized as too high by international agencies. The government has already decided to cut teachers and reduce benefits for civil servants.

Municipal and state officials are counting on Prague's downtown fully reopening and the bounce back to begin when the city hosts a summit of the NATO military alliance in late November. Some 15,000 participants and journalists are slated to attend, filling the hotels and restaurants that the tourists abandoned last month.

But this week the government's summit coordinator Alexander Vondra warned Prague residents to be prepared for street-paralyzing security measures. He said the steps would be necessary to protect delegates from anti-NATO protesters.

"The flood complicated our situation mainly with regards to transportation," Vondra admitted.

Indeed, getting around Prague will be slow during the summit period -- as it is in the post-flood period, and was when the city was founded on the banks of a river bend 1,000 years ago.

Trending Stories