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Germany

Relief Workers and Disaster Tourists Converge on Dresden

With flood waters still gushing in, but the worst apparently behind them, the people of Dresden continue to fight against the swollen Elbe River. A DW-WORLD report direct from the scene.

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Many Dresden streets are open only to pedestrians and bicycles

DRESDEN -- The sandbag line numbered some 15 people, all standing in thigh-high water doing their best to build a dam around the entrance to the parking garage of the recently rebuilt Taschenberg Palace, a commercial complex located just across from Dresden's historic Zwinger Palace.

The hotel's basement, which is home to some well-known Dresden restaurants, has already suffered an incalculable amount of damage, says general manager Ronald in'tVeld. Now, the best the volunteers and the hotel's 20 employees can do is attempt to keep the entire four floors of the parking garage from completely flooding and pushing even more water into the hotel's subterranean floors.

"This is very very bad," in'tVeld says. "I've seen the Elbe rise, but never like this."

In fact, no one has. The 9.4 meter (roughly 31 feet) water-level mark the winding river hit in the early hours Saturday morning broke a 157-year-old record and left Dresden's historic district and many of its surrounding neighborhoods swamped.

Rubberneckers and disaster tourists

Dresden's streets have become impossible to navigate for cars and have instead filled with pedestrians and bicycles. Some brave the up to thigh-deep waters near the baroque Semper Opera, leaving small wakes of muddy water trailing behind them.

So-called disaster tourists film and snap away at them and the lakes surrounding the submerged Zwinger Palace, where workers just a day ago hurried to move pieces from the museum's renowned porcelain collection to floors well above the flood waters. Massive pumps from the fire department and German federal disaster relief agency THW (Technische Hilfswerke) are working overdrive to clear the Zwinger's basement of the silty water that just keeps on coming.

Electricity in most of the city has been shut down.

The worst appeared to be over for Dresden on Saturday, after the Elbe showed signs of receding, said Rainer Waldner, who was heading the THW workers, part of a team of more than 4,000, on site. Pumps are in large demand and short supply currently in the flooded city.

The floods have come as a devastating psychological blow to Dresden. Almost completely destroyed from fire bombing near the end of World War II, the city had been deep in the midst of a dramatic restoration and reconstruction in the 12 years since the fall of the wall. Now, rather than moving ahead to restore it's former glory, it must once again piece itself back together.

Though water levels fell in Dresden on Saturday, they continued to surge downstream on both the Elbe and Mulde Rivers. Flood waters are expected to reach the Saxony-Anhalt cities of Magdeburg and Dessau by Sunday.

12 deaths, 21 missing in Germany

So far, this week's massive flooding in Germany has claimed 12 lives, including 11 in the state of Saxony, which has been heavily impacted by the swelling Elbe River. An additional 21 people have been registered as missing. At least 85 people have died across Europe -- from the Black Sea to the Baltic -- in this week's unexpected summer cataclysm.

In addition to the disruption of human lives, the floods have also severed some of Germany's most important transportation arteries, including the high-speed rail lines that connect Leipzig and Dresden -- eastern Germany's major business and industry hubs -- with Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. A major rail bridge on the line between Leipzig and Dresden collapsed in the city of Riesa on Saturday. There were no injuries, but the route will remain closed indefinitely.

Thousands of THW volunteers, along with more than 10,000 German Bundeswehr soldiers, are on the scene in cities and communities in the Elbe's downstream path, trying to minimize damage and safeguard sites with hazardous materials.

On Saturday, more than 16,000 residents were evacuated as flood waters gushed into Bitterfeld, but a chemical factory that had raised great concern among environmentalists has not been affected by flooding.

As other cities brace for the worst, Dresden is about to face the inevitable chapter that follows natural disaster: the long and painful process of clean-up and rebuilding. But Dresdeners are tough, having rebuilt from the ashes before.

Utter disbelief

Outside the Sophienkeller, a subterranean restaurant across from the Zwinger, a massive generator groans as architect Dietmar Matthes looks on helplessly.

The 245-seat restaurant has suffered massive damage, says Matthes, who has gotten little sleep since the water started coming in on Wednesday.

"You lay down for three, four hours, but can't sleep because you're still so nervous," he says. Matthes ends up spending most of his time as close to the Sophienkeller as possible, stacking the occasional sandbag and hoping for the best.

The floods have prompted an unprecedented wave of generosity and aid for victims and those left homeless. The mass-circulation daily Bild newspaper and television station ARD hosted a gala Friday night that raised some 10 million euro.

Perhaps more valuable, say city residents and aid workers, are people streaming in to help stack sandbags or offer food and drinks to those laboring against the flood waters.

"It's such a great feeling," says George Mueller, 20, who was evacuated from his home on Tuesday. "All the people are trying to help each other. It's amazing actually."

Just a few feet away, dozens of people are stacking sandbags at the entrances to the lower floors of the St. Benno Gynmnasium which, although relatively removed from the Elbe River, is slowly filling with water. They work methodically and quickly, stacking sandbags that came in on massive trucks carrying even more helpers.

Sven Schrick drove down from Berlin with his wife Thursday night to pitch in. The heating technician says the couple is planning to go around the city until Monday, volunteering where help is needed.

"Nobody could anticipate this," Schrick says, before heading off to stack more sandbags. "But by national catastrophes of this magnitude, as Mr. Schoeder said, we all need to come together."

  • Date 19.08.2002
  • Author Andreas Tzortzis
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2ZCW
  • Date 19.08.2002
  • Author Andreas Tzortzis
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2ZCW