Czechia

Notes from Prague: Water torture

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The year of the great flood ended, symbolically, with fresh floods. Prague itself has yet to return to normal.
by Pavla Kozakova

PRAGUE, Czech Republic--This was not much of a Christmas for the victims of the devastating floods that struck the Czech Republic last August. In the worst-hit Prague district, Karlin, the Christmas lights, busy shops, and street sellers of carp, the traditional fare for Christmas dinner, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the streets remain quiet, dusty and littered, with virtually all ground-floor spaces unoccupied, without plaster and swaddled in insulation material, windows barred. Sales of anti-depressants have reportedly risen.

Elsewhere, along the banks of the Vltava and Elbe, people who lost their homes were straining to rebuild by the end of the year, in an effort to maximize state support. Those who did received 1 million crowns ($33,300) from the state; those who did not will receive 400,000 crowns less. But instead of being able to say a happy goodbye to the year and welcome in the new, many had to face the prospect of living through the same nightmare on New Year's Eve, as a thaw and heavy rains forced water levels up sharply. Fortunately, though, only one village was seriously affected, with 220 people evacuated as a precaution.

Still, if seasonal cheer was in shorter supply than in previous years, it is not for want of charity on the part of other Czechs. The head of probably the most successful and most famous charity in the Czech Republic, Clovek v tisni (known internationally in areas such as Chechnya as People in Need) said that, by 19 December, it had raised over 212 million crowns ($7.1 million). According to director Simon Panek, that means every Czech has given a sum comparable to Americans' donations to the fund to support the victims of the 11 September attacks. It expects to raise another 40 million crowns ($1.3 million).

For its part, the government also provided a little extra Christmas relief by giving local administrations in the affected areas the right to decide whether and for how long they will exempt people from paying property taxes.

PRAGUE'S SUBMERGED SUBWAY

If the floods left some feeling downbeat through the festive season, others were clearly determined not to be. One subway station still closed to trains was opened on New Year's Eve for revelers, who paid $20 a head for a night of food, drink, rock music, and a French band's take on Balkan folk music.

That was just one of the eight stations that remained closed. In all, 17 of the subway system's 51 stations had to be shut after the floods. The second of Prague's three underground lines reopened only in December, and repair work on the third line is expected to be completed in March 2003, a few months later than first anticipated.

Still, the city's transport chiefs can enter the new year with some relief. In a city where car ownership has ballooned since 1989, the roughly 200,000 people who daily entered downturn areas that were sealed off after the floods had to rely on public transport for months. The system, even without a fully functioning metro, held up well.

But, more personally, those officials appear to have been absolved of blame for the damage. After the floods, questions were asked about whether such extensive destruction was inevitable and about why the subway system, built to withstand nuclear war and the worst floods in a century, had been closed down six hours after a warning that the water would rise higher than in any flood in a hundred years. By that time, the waters had begun to surge through the tunnels, posing a threat to several train drivers who were still on the tracks. A report by a municipal commission released in late November pinpointed technical causes and held no one to blame--but failed to explain the six-hour delay.

THE UNSETTLED BILLS

While the damage to the subway system is already well on its way to being repaired, it may still be some months before the full effect of the floods in Karlin become apparent. Utilities are now working--for the most part, electricity returned in mid-September, gas in October, and telephones in November--but numerous instances of pavements and roads suddenly caving in has kept the main thoroughfares closed, and cracks are expected to emerge when the spring and warm weather arrive.

Nor is the overall extent of the damage clear. Initial estimates put the cost of repairing the metro system at 2 billion crowns ($66.7 million); four months later and with three months still to go before completion, the figure has multiplied to 7 billion crowns ($233 million). This has helped push the current estimates of the overall damage caused by the floods up from the lowest initial forecasts--around 60 billion crowns ($2 billion)--to 73 billion crowns ($2.4 billion). Financing all this is proving a problem. If engineers' estimates are right, the subway system will need to raise another 3 billion crowns ($100 million), as so far the state and insurers have promised only 4 billion crowns. For the state, a 12 billion crown ($400 million) loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB), signed in December, will help. However, the floods have provided enough reason (or excuse, some argue) for the government to cancel an order for 24 fighter jets. Whether it will buy any planes at all has not been decided.

How much of the damage is fiction is, naturally, unknown. As always, there are stories of fraud. Some in Karlin are, for example, selling diesel provided free by the council to private owners to fuel generators used to dry damp basements. Some companies, investigative journalists argue, have turned the floods to their benefit (to the tune of millions of crowns), raising suspicions of bribery. Locals speculate that officials would prefer to see some of the 200 residential buildings that it owns collapse and be replaced with commercial developments. Meanwhile, in some of the roughly 600 privately owned buildings, work has not even begun, suggesting that some owners see demolition as the best option--and also as a means of removing long-standing residents (whose rents are controlled) without having to re-house them, as the law requires. Overall, 200 families continue to live with relatives, in country cottages, or in temporary accommodations.

And, in a common theme in Czech public life, there are questions about why contracts for the reconstruction of the subway system have been awarded without a public tender, and why Prague city councilors--some of whom sit on the supervisory board of the city's transport company--rejected a proposal to appoint a special auditor.

But, on a brighter note for a new year, for many people things should look significantly better soon. Clovek v tisni has until now not provided direct assistance to specific families in Karlin, instead providing general humanitarian aid, generators, and 2,000 volunteers to help in the cleanup effort. It has also acted as a point of contact between locals and officialdom.

Panek says the delay is because "we do not know how to help them at the moment," as the most serious long-term needs will become clear only in the spring. Plans are partly being complicated by ownership issues as, according to Panek, 90 percent of the families affected do not live in their own flats. Overall, he anticipates that 640 families in the district will receive aid ranging from 10,000 to 100,000 crowns ($330 to $3,300), averaging out at 35,000 crowns ($1,170). His organization will also be helping private schools, retirement homes, and other services in need of renovation.

As for the Prague zoo, the loss of nine mammals and 80 birds in August was a difficult blow, and the enclosure that formally housed Gaston, a seal who died of exhaustion after being swept down the river to Germany, continues to be showered with flowers. However, the zoo is busy rebuilding and redesigning itself, and visitors at the New Year had the chance to see a new arrival, a baby giraffe.

There is also still life in old and badly damaged papers, it seems. Necessity being the mother of invention, Czech scientists have found a unique way of using microwaves to dry the archives of a number of libraries.

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