At 4 a.m. Wednesday, firemen began banging on doors in Prague's medieval Old Town, forcing families and shop owners to flee to higher ground. The streets filled with frightened people carrying bundles, a sight unseen here since World War II. Several residents fought against the forced evacuation, hoping to save some of their belongings.
The Czech Republic is the latest country hit in a season of torrents and torment in Europe. Heavy rains and flooding have also paralyzed parts of Slovakia, Italy, Spain, Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, and Ukraine. Austria has been declared a disaster area. The floods have claimed 94 lives in the past week and a half, 59 of them in flash floods in southern Russia.
As they watch their homes and businesses drown, some in Europe worry that these floods are the result of climate changes induced by man. In Asia, torrential rains in China have killed 900 people this year. In North and South Korea, Vietnam, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, floods have claimed another 700 lives in the past month.
"Rainfall is becoming more intense," says Prof. Phil Jones of the Climactic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, a prominent European meteorological institution. "This is not a [natural] cycle."
While in the United States the scientific community is split between those who believe unnatural climate change is occurring and those who don't, in Europe experts tend to agree in the view that the global climate is undergoing massive changes and that human activities and industry play a large role.
But whether global warming is a clear culprit in the most recent flooding is a subject of debate, even among the Europeans.
"Undeniably, people are responsible for this disaster," says Martin Kravcik of People and Water, a Slovak nongovernmental environmental think tank. "Central Europe is experiencing droughts in spring and fall and extreme rains in summer. Summer rains are expected to increase by 20-30 percent by 2010. This will cause catastrophic floods."
But many scientists urge caution in jumping to conclusions. "We believe that climate change will happen in the next 50 to 80 years and it will be mostly the result of human activities," says Sean Clarke, meteorologist at the Met Office, the British government's weather agency. "It is possible that we are already seeing some of the effects, but it is impossible to know for sure."
Already, the flooding is reviving European calls for implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, which would set limits on the industrial emissions believed to cause global warming. Ratified by many European countries, the treaty was rejected by President Bush last year. European environmentalists say they will take the story of this year's floods to the Earth Summit in Johannesburg this month as further evidence that the protocol should be implemented.
Deforestation is also being cited as a factor in exacerbating the effects of the floods because it makes the soil less able to absorb water.
In the Czech Republic, the floods are being described as the worst in more than a century. Hundreds of towns and villages have been swamped by heavy rains and raging rivers, and a state of emergency has been declared. Bridges have been ripped from their foundations; roads and rail lines submerged; and wooden cabins, cars, and furniture swept away. The Czech government reports hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in central and southern areas.
About 50,000 people have been evacuated from the capital, Prague, and many thousands more have been made homeless in outlying towns.
In the Karlin district, next to the Old Town, up to 9 feet of water swept away the sandbags. Through the windows of one building, papers and coffee cups could be seen on a table, laundry still hanging on a line.
Some of the most valuable historical architecture in Europe has been swamped with several meters of water and mud, despite barricades built by thousands of firemen and volunteers. The 16th-century Charles Bridge, which still peaks above the once-lazy Vltava, is in danger of collapsing. A plaque outside the Lavka Restaurant at the end of the bridge is engraved with the line where the river peaked in 1890, in the worst flood on record. Now, that plaque is under water.
While the river has slowed its rise, heavy winds have begun gusting over the capital, raising fears of a storm surge that could push water through barricades and over a flood wall protecting the Old Town.
As the waters of the Vltava River rise, Petr Perina pumps furiously.
"The fireman can't help us because there are simply not enough of them," says the computer programmer, helping a neighbor siphon water out of a basement on Benediska Street in the Old Town. "Now each of us has to help himself." But there is nowhere for the pumped water to go, and the street outside is slowly being submerged.
Honza Kubes watches with his baby daughter from a hill above his home in the Prague district of Holesovice, which is almost completely submerged.
"We were evacuated yesterday and we can't go back," he says. "I can't imagine what we are going to do or if life will ever go back to normal. When I was a boy, we never had floods like this," he says, rubbing his face with trembling hands.
Flood-fighting volunteer Vojtech Brdicka, working at a sandbag barrier in Prague's Old Town Square, worries about his grandmother. "The district where my grandmother lives is already under water and I haven't been able to contact her," he says. He also echoes the concerns being voiced here about a possible link between the flooding and global warming. "If humanity doesn't pay attention, we will be destroyed," he says.
The charming Czech spa town of Trebon to the south could be washed off the map. Since the 17th century, the town has nestled under a dike holding back the 500-acre World Pond. Now the dike is beginning to give way.
"This is a terrifying,," says fireman Martin Fucik, resting briefly between rescue efforts. "This flood is unnatural. We have had floods every year for the past eight years. That was bad, but it was nothing compared to this."
After going out to evacuate residents from flooded homes, Mr. Fucik and his crew returned to find their own station under water.