Scramble to protect chemical stores and historic sites from floods in east Germany

HELICOPTERS ferried sandbags to plug the crumbling dikes of flooding rivers in eastern Germany yesterday, as workers scrambled to protect a huge chemical complex and towns such as Wittenberg, once the home of religious reformer Martin Luther.

Upstream, Dresden authorities were weighing when the sinking level of the Elbe River could allow some of the thousands evacuated from the city to return to inspect the damage to their sodden homes.

With Germany now the focus of the flooding that has killed at least 105 people across Europe, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was to meet in Berlin yesterdayok with European Commission president Romano Prodi and leaders from Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to discuss how to tackle the devastation.

The bill in Germany, where politicians say they face the biggest rebuilding project since World War II, has been estimated at up to $14.8billion, raising concern that it will struggle to meet European Union budget rules.

Russia, recovering from its own devastating floods, said yesterday it would send to Germany pumps and equipment to check the stability of buildings, and dispatch a team of transport experts to the Czech capital, Prague.

In Prague yesterday, municipal leaders sealed off parts of the historic city in the wake of the worst flooding there for 175 years.

In the eastern German town of Bitterfeld, hundreds of emergency workers and soldiers were trying to fix breaks in the bank of the Mulde River.

Water from the river has covered part of the town since Saturday.

Bitterfeld’s 16,000 inhabitants were evacuated.

Trucked-in sand was being shovelled into sacks at a sports field. Six military helicopters were dropping the sacks directly into a breach in the dike or setting them down near an industrial site that is home to some 350 chemical plants so that more workers could build defences.

Officials insisted the situation was stable, though residents fear an environmental catastrophe if the water reaches the toxic chemicals stored at the industrial site or that seeped into the ground during communist times.

On the Elbe, a dike gave way overnight at Wittenberg, flooding several streets in the town of about 50,000 people.

Wittenberg’s Old Town, where Martin Luther launched the Reformation in 1517, lies on higher ground and was not threatened by the record 23 feet of water pressing down the river.

In Dresden, where officials are battling to keep the water out of expensively restored monuments such as the Semper Opera and Zwinger Palace museum, officials said it was possible some residents may be allowed to return home yesterday.

Many neighbourhoods were still under water, but the Elbe had fallen about 20 inches from its historic high of 31 feet reached early on Saturday.

Some of the almost 40,000 evacuees across Saxony state were allowed back to their homes in Pirna, farther upstream toward the Czech border.

Rescue workers no longer needed boats to move around the town, officials said.

Farther north, the city of Magdeburg was beginning to move people out as the Elbe’s crest surged toward the North Sea.

The Elbe is expected to threaten there in the next few days, despite a forecast of mostly sunny weather.

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