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Culture

Saving a Dresden Institution

Nothing is more important to Dresdners than their cultural heritage. They turned out in droves this week to make saving a local museum complex a community effort.

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Pump trucks race to remove silty flood waters from Dresden museums

DRESDEN -- The little pumps had been working furiously to clear the massive basement of the 18th century Japanese Palace in Dresden.

Help had come from all around, with people offering their automatic pumps and hard labor to bail out the water collecting in the basement, which had been completely submerged as the Elbe River, typically more than 10 meters away, moved to within two on Friday afternoon. But the pumps were not enough.

Below, the electricity and heating that powered the Museum of Archaeology, the Museum of Ethnology and the State Museum of Prehistory, all housed in the palace, was within 10 meters (about 33 feet) of the rising water. Had the water reached the power room, the pumps would have stopped running, leaving the entire future of the building in doubt.

"We got to the point where we thought everything was fine, but then it continued getting worse," said Rainer Vollkommer, director of the Museum of Prehistoric History.

Rescuers arrive in the nick of time

Then, in what appears to be a textbook example of how well-organized relief efforts in this flooded region have been, workers and volunteers from Germany's disaster relief agency THW (Technische Hilfswerk) pulled up in their blue trucks, equipped with massive pumps. The team, from the central German region of Sauerland near Dortmund, had gotten the orders from the crisis command center to drive by the museum at 6 p.m. Friday, just hours after they arrived in the city.

They made their way into the basement, a collection of rooms, where volunteers were busy sweeping away water and doing their best to keep the water level down.

There, they installed two pumps, each capable of pumping out between 1,600 and 1,800 liters (approximately 423-475 gallons) per minute. The pumps helped get the water back down to a manageable level. The flood waters that had filled up a trench behind the palace’s small retaining wall began to sink as well.

"Without their help, it would already be lost, the war against the water," said Vollkommer.

A refuge for mental escape

Almost miraculously, the museum was able to keep its doors open to the public over the weekend. Tourists stranded in the city and locals seeking to escape the nightmare swirling around them streamed into the complex on Saturday, said Judith Oexley, who directs the archeology museum.

Meanwhile, in the building’s backyard, thick hoses continued to pump water from the basement into the Elbe.

"We let them in and they were simply happy that there was an island where there was something to do," said Oexley. "When there are parts of the city that sink, then there should be those people that can to show others that we can still keep our head above water."

The majority of the museum’s roughly 10 million pieces – ranging from the state of Saxony’s stone age up until some historic findings before World War II -- had been moved up to a nearby storage depot on higher ground unaffected by flooding.

Dresdeners and a princess pitch in

But Tuesday, as the situation worsened, workers, some complete strangers, took a half a day and emptied the basement of its remaining artifacts.

An architect and two electricians stopped by Friday as well and reconfigured the electrical system so that the pumps could run more efficiently. Friends of the museum, including Saxony’s Princess Gisela, dropped by with food Saturday afternoon for Oexley and her team, who have begun working in shifts.

"There have been so many people who have come to me asking where they can help," said Juergen Nusspickel, who drove up Thursday morning with the disaster relief team from Iserlohn in Sauerland that helped save the museum. "The solidarity is just indescribable."

Oexley had another explanation for it. "It became very clear during these long days who knows whom from which corner," she said. Dresden, she added, had become a "village."

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