Czechs flee flooding

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Tens of thousands of Czechs fled their historic capital for higher ground Tuesday as torrential rains turned the Vltava River into a menacing cascade and unleashed more flooding that has now killed at least 88 people across Europe.

Churning toward Prague’s Old Town, the heart of the capital and a popular tourist stop, the swollen Vltava inflicted the worst flooding in more than a century on the Czech Republic. Officials said at least nine people died after more than a week of heavy rainfall.

Water engulfed Prague’s historic Kampa island, flooding architectural gems dating to the Hapsburg Empire. Volunteers gathered around landmarks and scrambled to fill hundreds of sandbags in a desperate bid to save the city’s treasures from rising waters.

At least 40,000 residents of low-lying areas of Prague – a city of just over 1 million inhabitants – were ordered to leave their homes Tuesday, and the 340-room Intercontinental Hotel and the Four Seasons Hotel evacuated their guests at the peak of the summer tourist season.

Emergency workers cleared bridges of hundreds of people watching the rising waters, but many tourists ignored the call to evacuate.

“This is a quite different experience than I thought I would get,” said Mike McCloskey, 20, a student from Philadelphia who photographed volunteers building a barrier along the road leading to the river.

In neighboring Austria, where at least seven people have died, firefighters and Red Cross volunteers were stacking sandbags to hold back parts of the swollen Danube River, which flooded Vienna’s port and some low-lying streets.

The flooding affected an estimated 60,000 Austrians, who either were evacuated from their homes or suffered flood damage, authorities said. In Salzburg province, more than 1,000 buildings were under water.

“Upper Austria offers the image of misery – a land submerged in water,” said Josef Puehringer, the provincial governor.

Most of Europe’s flooding casualties were in Russia, where at least 58 people were killed late last week – mostly Russian tourists vacationing on the Black Sea who were ambushed by floodwaters that swept cars and tents out to sea.

In Germany, where firefighters and soldiers stacked sandbags to reinforce strained river banks, a 71-year-old man drowned Monday night in flooding in Dresden, and a cascade of mud and water swept away two adults and a child Tuesday, German authorities said.

Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, who declared a state of emergency Monday night, deployed 4,000 soldiers throughout the country, and President Vaclav Havel cut short a Portugal vacation because of flooding that destroyed or rendered impassable more than a dozen bridges.

Officials called the flooding Prague’s worst since 1890.

Interior Ministry officials said the Vltava had not yet crested, and they were unable to predict when that would occur. Petr Hudler, director-general of the Vltava River Authority, said he expected the waters to peak sometime between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. Wednesday, although he doubted the Old Town would flood.

But Interior Ministry spokeswoman Gabrila Bartikova offered a far more bleak outlook: “The worst is still to come.”

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