Bursting Levees Strain Europe's New Democracies

The Oder and Neisse Rivers are generally thought of as dividing Germany from Poland. But as Central Europe reels from one of the worst natural disasters this century, it is clear that the rivers connect as well as divide.

Civil and military authorities are holding their breath in the hope that the worst of the flooding may be over - but the levees have absorbed so much water they are "like pudding," as a state government official put it. Yesterday, a third dike holding in the swollen waters of the Oder River burst in Germany near Frankfurt. And it is expected to be weeks before an all-clear can be sounded, even if the weather holds.

Coming close on the heels of first steps by NATO and the European Union to take in Poland and the Czech Republic as members, the floods are also being viewed as an important early test of the governments of these two new democracies. Neither of them has particularly distinguished itself.

Although the Iron Curtain may be gone, there is still work to be done to improve cross-border cooperation in sharing water-management information and in responding to natural disasters.

The high waters, caused by rains that began falling relentlessly on the Czech Republic and Poland at the end of June, are being described as "the flood of the century" - and that appears to be an understatement. Scores have died. Estimates of property damage are still being developed, but the costs are sure to be in the billions.

Polish Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz responded to the first reports of flooding in the western part of his country by remarking that anyone without flood insurance has only himself to blame. His approval ratings across Poland took a nosedive. He has subsequently apologized.

The Polish Army, trained in disaster preparedness, was called out to help in Upper Silesia only after the worst was over. And as the Oder was closing in on Wroclaw in the west, sand was delivered to fortify riverbanks - but no bags. Frantic children ran door to door begging for pillowcases to help stem the flood.

Disaster response in the Czech Republic was similarly marred by problems. On her recent visit, United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged Prague to demonstrate its readiness to join NATO. But some Czechs wonder whether their government truly is ready for the big leagues if it can't handle an internal disaster better than this.

In recent days, the crisis has shifted north - downriver, that is. Authorities are bracing for another possible wave of high water by the middle of this week.

Some 20,000 residents of Germany's Oderbruch region have been told to prepare to evacuate as the Oder approached a record high of 660 cm (about 21 feet). It was of this region north of Frankfurt that Frederick II of Prussia said, "Here I have conquered a province in peace, without losing a single man." In the 18th century, he had dikes built to turn marshlands into farmland.

Now this conquest is being defended by the military - using shovels and sandbags, instead of guns. Some 8,300 German soldiers have mobilized to protect the earthen levees - the largest civil deployment since 1962, when the military was called out to assist with a ruptured dike on the Elbe.

The village of Hohenwutzen, north of Frankfurt, looked remarkably calm Saturday evening for a place under evacuation order. Some 4,500 people in the district have been ordered out of their homes, but some simply went to higher ground within their own community. Flower gardens were in brilliantly colorful bloom and the Saturday evening promenaders were out in force - as far as police lines would let them. And the river, graced with elegant willows, looked beautiful. It was just so high.

Just a few hundred yards from the village, damage to the levee had been detected the afternoon before. Some 500 soldiers worked from 4 p.m. till after midnight placing 40,000 sandbags along the 45-yard-long stretch of the levee.

Over in Neukstrindchen, another 100 soldiers were sandbagging a fissure at the base of the levee. They worked in three lines, passing bags hand to hand down to the base of the levee, where the reinforcement was needed.

Soldiers and police officers laughed and joked as they passed the bags along in a jerky rhythm. The sidearms and handcuffs dangling from the police officers' belts were a reminder that their usual jobs are rather different. "We have to wear all this stuff," said a policewoman from Oranienburg. "After all, we're still on duty."

However lighthearted the soldiers' mood, this is serious business. Lt. Jorg Kiefel pointed to cracks along the top of the levee. "This is new. This shows where the water is pushing through here."

Except for military and government vehicles, the place was almost deserted - by humans, that is. Formations of geese soared over whitening wheat fields and honked at the green helicopters that flew over them with their cargo of sandbags.

German water-management experts have said that although much has been learned from floods along the Elbe and more recently the Rhine, there simply isn't data available on the Oder to make better flood forecasting possible.

Better sharing of data with the Czechs and the Poles is needed, and so is better computer modeling, German river expert Gnther von Sengbusch said in a radio interview. "But that could cost millions," he said, adding that none of the governments have money to spare.

Yesterday, German Interior Minister Manfred Kanther met with his counterpart, Leszek Miller, to discuss cooperative efforts in Slubice, Poland, whose 17,000 residents have been ordered to evacuate their homes - again.

If the floods have been a test of the new democracies in the east, they have also been an occasion to appreciate the benefits of reunification. In this flood zone there are plenty of signs of practical aid from across Germany. Civilian volunteer squads have come from as far away as North Rhine Westphalia. The troops bagging at Neukstrindchen traveled seven hours from Rostock. Col. Berndt Walsch says he and his men are camped at a high school in Wriezen, a few miles away. "We've got some real fans among the students," he adds. "They're hoping for a long deployment" - which would delay the start of the school year. They may get their wish. A local spokesman estimates it could take up to a month for the all-clear to be sounded.

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