In Flooded Europe, Familiar Feelings and New Questions

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MEISSEN, Germany -- Andrea Bahrmann refused to talk about what it cost to rebuild 11 years ago, after the floodwaters of the Elbe reached record levels, bursting over the banks and devastating this riverside city near Dresden in eastern Germany. On Thursday, she wavered between anger and dismay as she watched the river's surging brown water rise once again to record levels, drowning her house to the windowsills.

As a native of this city, famed for its fine porcelain, Ms. Bahrmann echoed the words of many who live along the major rivers of Central Europe as torrents of rain have produced another once-in-a-lifetime disaster, barely a decade after the last.

"This is the power of nature," she said of the waters, which last time claimed her family's historic home. "They need to think of something else, some way to create space for rivers."

The authorities said it was too early to fully assess the damage from the flooding along the Elbe and the Danube, which has fallen just short of the record levels of 2002. But the Institute for Economic Research, a private research group based in Cologne, estimated that costs could run as high as $7.9 billion in Germany alone.

In the eyes of many, however, it is not premature to be raising questions about why the area was hit again so soon. While some blamed climate change, others pointed to poor planning and overbuilding in areas endangered by floods.

Climate experts for the insurance giant Munich Re said the weeks of heavy rain that set off the flooding were the result of moist air from the Mediterranean combining with a strong low-pressure system that built up over much of Central and Eastern Europe. They called it a "weather pattern that has become increasingly common in recent decades."

Peter Höppe, the head of research for Munich Re, called for better planning to prevent flooding, including expanding overflow areas and reinforcing existing dikes.

"Flooding is a natural danger that we can best reduce and prevent," Mr. Höppe said.

Ms. Bahrmann concurred. "A long time ago, this used to be a path through a field; there was room for the river to spill over," she said, gesturing to the churning water flowing past her house.

Behind a clump of trees sticking out from the water, she said the authorities had built a dike that was supposed to hold back the river.

It was evident that lessons had been learned since 2002 in nearby Dresden, where protective walls and layers of sandbags shielded the city's famed Semper Opera House, its Baroque cathedral and the Zwinger palace from water that crested Thursday at nearly 29 feet.

In the neighboring Czech Republic, where the water has begun to recede, finger-pointing has begun, with smaller communities complaining that the floodwaters had been channeled in their direction in an effort to preserve Prague's historic bridges, which draw tourists from around the world.

For many of the quaint river cities that rely on flocks of summer tourists to help fill their coffers, the psychological toll of another lost season and the monumental task of rebuilding weigh heavily.

The German government spent millions to refurbish even the smallest towns in the former East Germany in the 1990s, only to face rebuilding after the 2002 floods.

Travel throughout the region was hampered, with railroads and stretches of highway submerged in Germany, tangling traffic and stranding some passengers.

Two people died while filling sandbags across Germany, bringing the human toll of the flooding across Europe to 16.

Ralph Stiller, who stood on the bridge outside of his home, staring at the water lapping at his basement windows, said he was lucky this time around. After losing his furnace and sustaining widespread structural damage in 2002 to the house that has been in his family for generations, he said he was able to secure an insurance policy.

Where his family would normally gather around the grill, only the peak of a small pavilion stood out above the murky water. Given how extensive the flooding is, engulfing cities in four of Germany's 16 states and threatening several others as the wall of water surged toward Magdeburg and the North Sea, he said he feared there would not be enough support to go around.

On Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged $130 million in immediate aid to affected regions in Germany, but much more will be needed.

"Ms. Merkel promised us some help, but I'm not so sure," Mr. Stiller said.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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