Danube Crests Near Record Level in Budapest

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BUDAPEST -- The Danube, which normally bisects Budapest as a gently rolling swath of silver, hovered at historic levels Monday, as the Hungarian capital struggled as record floods battered Central and Eastern Europe.

An unusually wet spring has swollen the Danube, the Elbe and several of their tributaries across Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany and Hungary, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, disrupting rail and road traffic, and causing damage that some preliminary estimates have put at several billion dollars.

The authorities in Budapest declared a state of emergency last week, anticipating that the Danube would crest at record levels in the north of the country. A proposal to extend the state of emergency was to be submitted to Parliament on Monday. The Danube peaked at 8.91 meters, or about 29 feet, Sunday night. That exceeded the record of 8.6 meters, set in 2006, but remained below the 9.3-meter flood walls protecting central Budapest.

State television showed Prime Minister Viktor Orban at work on the defenses along the Danube on Monday. At a news conference in the capital he warned that the dwindling floods could also cause difficulties.

"Water levels in the southern areas will also be higher than any time so far," Mr. Orban said. "Defending the segment below Budapest will also be a huge task.

"As a result I'm asking for the same courage, determination and organization that we witnessed in the last days."

In Germany, a dike on the Elbe River burst overnight Sunday, flooding the village of Fischbeck and forcing 1,200 people to flee their homes.

In the eastern German city of Magdeburg, the Elbe had begun to recede early Monday, after reaching a record 7.46 meters the previous day. The rising waters severed rail traffic from Berlin to many areas in western Germany, forcing trains to be diverted along many key routes as the mass of water surged north.

The authorities in eastern Germany kept watch on dikes along the flood route, which stretched some 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, by Sunday. Already strained by the task of reinforcing sodden dikes with thousands of sandbags, emergency officials had a new concern when a group calling itself the Germanophobe Flood Brigade threatened in a letter to attack the barriers.

Holger Stahlknecht, the top security official for the state of Saxony-Anhalt, on Sunday ordered more helicopters to patrol the flooded area and increased security along the dikes, telling the German news agency DPA, "We are taking the letter seriously."

Germans from across the country responded to calls over social networking sites to organize and help protect threatened areas, winning praise from President Joachim Gauck, who toured the flooded areas Sunday.

In 1997, less than a decade after the reunification of East and West Germany, record flooding along part of the Oder River in the east became a rallying point.

"Germany is a country of solidarity," Mr. Gauck said after meeting a few of the thousands of people from the country's former east and west who flocked to stricken villages to help fill and pile the thousands of sandbags needed to hold back the rising waters.

In Hungary on Monday, road and rail traffic was restricted in Budapest and other areas along the Danube, although the authorities suggested that most of the capital would stay dry. About 1,200 people throughout the country had been evacuated from their homes.

The Hungarian government deployed 7,000 soldiers, supported by several thousand volunteers, to reinforce dikes along the river.

Officials said dikes would have to be protected for about a week until the flooding fully subsided. In the capital, water welled up from the sewage systems in some places, prompting fears that the Danube was endangering flood defenses and subway stations

Crowds of onlookers gathered Sunday night to stare in amazement at the river that runs across the city. Tourists and locals alike struck poses for cameras in front of the gray body of water that looked more like a large lake than a river, surrounded by some of the city's most famous landmarks.

This year's flooding on the Danube has already surpassed water levels measured in 2006, when all of Hungary's major rivers swelled beyond their banks, costing about $110 million in flood defenses. In recent years, specialists have warned repeatedly of the danger and cost of the failure to develop a comprehensive flood defense system for the country.

The national water authority declined to comment Sunday, but an assessment published on its Web site found that the decreased drainage capacity of the Hungarian flood protection system was due largely to increased building on former floodplains along rivers.

The European Environment Agency warned Wednesday that flooding was likely to increase in Europe for several reasons, including climate change, said Hans Bruyninckx, the agency's executive director.

"But in many cases," he said, "flood risk is also the result of where, and how, we choose to live."

Melissa Eddy reported from Berlin.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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