Residents flee Prague as floods come

As many as 40,000 residents fled low-lying parts of Prague before dawn today, hours before the worst flood in more than 100 years was expected to hit the Czech capital.

As many as 40,000 residents fled low-lying parts of Prague before dawn today, hours before the worst flood in more than 100 years was expected to hit the Czech capital.

Elsewhere firefighters frantically stacked sandbags next to the swollen Danube River as torrential rains continued to inflict misery across much of central Europe.

At least 75 people have died, 58 of them Russian tourists at Black Sea resorts whose cars and tents were swept away. As many as 4,000 tourists were reportedly still trapped in Shirokaya Balka, a coastal village.

In the Czech Republic, Prague Mayor Igor Nemec ordered 40,000 residents of low-lying parts of the historic capital to leave their homes after the Vltava River burst its banks in the city’s worst flooding since 1954.

One report quoted another official as saying the river was expected to rise between 3ft to 6ft in some residential areas - levels not seen since 1890, and up to 20 times the average for this time of year.

Interior Minister Stanislav Gross tried to urge fears about looting, saying he would ask the government to let him deploy 400 soldiers.

At least seven Czechs have already died in 10 days of flooding. Rains have swollen rivers in the south of the country, and a wall of water was expected to sweep down into the capital.

The 14th century Charles Bridge, one of Prague’s main tourist attractions, would be closed to allow cranes to operate over the river, removing trees and other debris being carried by the fast flowing water.

Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla yesterday declared a state of emergency in Prague and South Bohemia, Central Bohemia, Plzen and Karlovy Vary regions.

In Prague, workers were moving books and important documents to higher floors in the National Library and the Senate, and some animals at a zoo were taken to higher ground.

Shopkeepers battled to save what they could before locking up and hoping for the best.

The Danube was beginning to punch through dams in the town of Ybbs in Lower Austria province, local radio said, and more than 1,000 buildings in Salzburg were under water.

Rain fell in wind-whipped sheets overnight in Vienna, bringing dams in villages west of the Austrian capital to their breaking point.

In Germany, where firefighters and soldiers stacked sandbags to reinforce straining river banks, a 71-year-old man drowned last night in flooding in Dresden, and German authorities said three other people were missing.

Numerous dams were in danger of breaking in towns along the Danube near Passau, a city on the Austrian border whose old town was completely submerged early today.

In eastern Switzerland, torrential rains caused a series of small landslides yesterday, including one that cut off a rail line between Chur and Arosa.

Another on the Griesalp mountain in central Switzerland swept away a bridge, stranding more than 150 people until an emergency span could be put in place.

Austria saw its first four casualties yesterday in more than a week of unprecedented flooding: A firefighter swept away by a churning river in Mariapfarr in Salzburg province and a man whose body was found floating in a flooded cellar in Hallein, also in Salzburg.

The third was a 48-year-old man who was crushed in a landslide near the village of Kirchheim in Upper Austria province.

The floods claimed their fourth life in Austria early today.

A 61-year-old firefighter in Upper Austria drowned after his car skidded off a road into a flooded field and sank.

"The scene is catastrophic," Wilfried Weissgaerber, the national fire brigade commander for the province of Lower Austria, told Austrian radio as he described collapsed houses and washed-out railway tracks.

More than 3,000 firefighters helped by thousands of soldiers were involved in rescue and salvage operations.

Many were deployed in Lower Austria, where the Kamp River spilled over, causing the worst flooding since records began in 1896. In Upper Austria, about 48 stranded motorists were rescued from their cars overnight near the western city of Linz.

In the Upper Austria town of Grein, the Danube rose to 43ft early today - twice as high as normal.

Shipping on the Danube was halted yesterday because of the river’s rapid rise, Austria’s navigation authority said.

Nationwide, hundreds of people were homeless, numerous roads were under water and mail delivery was seriously hampered by the flooding.

About 50 miles of train tracks were under water today in Austria, causing headaches for travellers and freight haulers, the national railway said.

Officials in Upper Austria urged companies not to fire employees who cannot make it to work.

"Employees cannot be expected to swim to work," the provincial chamber of commerce said.

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