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European rivers, long known for their beauty, turn ugly



Published: Sat, August 17, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Nature's fury was unleashed on Europe this week, taking the lives of more than 100 people and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. In some areas, the worst is yet to come.

Flood waters swept through large sections of both Eastern and Western Europe. About 60 of the deaths occurred in Russia, where tourists were swept away by water rushing toward the Black Sea.

In addition to the irreplaceable loss of life, there was the loss of irreplaceable property. Raging waters do not discriminate between modern, pedestrian structures and landmarks that have stood for centuries.

The Danube River, which flows through German, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldavia and Ukraine, is associated more with beauty and song than destruction and death. But this is not an ordinary flood. Waters are rising to levels never recorded before, to levels that might be expected once in 500 years.

The full extent of the damage will not be known until long after the water recedes.

Concern in Prague

In Prague, for instance, officials were fearful that unstable buildings and palaces could collapse. Much of the Old Town is built on sand, and it isn't yet known how much of that has been washed away. Two famed synagogues, including the oldest Jewish temple in Central Europe, are known to have sustained heavy damage.

Engineers in the Czech Republic were attempting to save the preserved medieval town of Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO heritage site.

In Dresden, emergency workers abandoned efforts to pump intruding waters from the basement of the city's 19th-century Semper Opera. Stage sets, sheet music and instruments were lost. In the nearby Zwinger Palace museum workers managed to save thousands of priceless art works by the old masters by stacking them on the museum's upper floors.

While Austrians were cleaning up mud and debris along the Danube, Hungary was bracing for high water to hit Budapest and evacuated 1,000 people.

Parts of eastern and northern Germany are threatened not only by rising waters, but by the threat of an ecological disaster if hundreds of chemical plants along the Elbe come under water.

U.S. steps up

The United States has already begun playing a helping role, with the government donating money to the Red Cross and providing pumps and drying equipment in some areas.

In coming weeks and months the American people are certain to hear appeals for aid and -- equally certain -- will respond with care and generosity.

The level of devastation seen in some towns is being compared to that suffered during World War II. As those images continue to appear on their television screens and in their newspapers, the American people will reach out, even during a time of economic uncertainty at home.




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