Flood havoc continues as death toll reaches 105

Thousands of workers continued to fight devastating floods in central Europe today as the death toll from the disaster rose to at least 105.

Thousands of workers continued to fight devastating floods in central Europe today as the death toll from the disaster rose to at least 105.

Helicopters ferried sandbags to plug the crumbling dikes of flooding rivers in eastern Germany while workers fought to protect a huge chemical complex from rising waters.

Towns such as Wittenberg, once the home of religious reformer Martin Luther, were also under threat.

Upstream, authorities in Dresden were pondering when the sinking level of the River Elbe would 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, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was to meet in Berlin today with European Commission President Romano Prodi and leaders from Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to discuss how to tackle the devastation.

Officials from Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Russia have given death figures which amount to at least 105.

Insurance company Allianz has estimated the bill in Germany alone at up to 15 billion euros (£9.8 billion).

In the town of Bitterfeld, hundreds of emergency workers and soldiers were working feverishly to fix a break in the bank of the Mulde River.

Waters there have covered part of the town since Saturday after its 16,000 inhabitants were evacuated in advance.

Sand brought in by lorries was being shovelled into sacks. A fleet of six helicopters were dropping the sacks directly into the breach in the dike, or setting them down near an industrial site hosting some 350 chemical plants so that more workers could build defences.

Officials said the situation was stable though critical.

Environmental groups have warned of a catastrophe if the water reaches Bitterfeld’s factories and toxic chemicals stored there.

On the Elbe, a dike gave way overnight near Wittenberg, officials said. Emergency workers scrambled to throw up new defences just to the north as the water advanced, said Ronald Gauert, a spokesman for the town, which has about 50,000 inhabitants.

The Old Town, where Martin Luther launched the Reformation in 1517, lies on higher ground and is not threatened by the record 6.89 meters (23 feet) of water pressing down the river, Gauert said.

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 might be allowed to return home today.

Several neighbourhoods were flooded in recent days, but the Elbe had fallen about 50 centimeters (20 inches) from its historic high of 9.40 meters (31 feet) reached early Saturday, city spokesman Karl Schuricht said.

Two bridges across the river have been opened. Divers were examining a third, built in 1893, to see if it was still sound.

Some of the almost 40,000 evacuees across Saxony state were allowed back to their homes in Pirna, further upstream towards the Czech border. Rescue workers no longer needed boats to move around the town, officials said.

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

City officials say they can divert some of the water into a 19th-century relief channel.

Some 20,000 farm animals were moved out of parts of Brandenburg state, which surrounds Berlin, and a similar number of people told to get ready to follow them, governor Matthias Platzeck said.

"What’s happening here is unimaginable," he said on German television.

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

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