MUEHLBERG, Germany - Hungary warned Friday it was headed for the worst floods in its history as the death toll from swollen rivers in central Europe topped 14 and Germany raced to shore up its sodden dams.
Volunteers, rescuers and soldiers in northern German states feverishly piled up sandbags along the Elbe river, along which vast stretches have already been deluged with seas of brown water from the Czech Republic to eastern Germany.
Thousands of Hungarians reinforced dykes along the Danube through the night ahead of expected record floods hitting historic Budapest, as Europe’s worst river flooding in over a decade claimed two more victims, bringing the death toll to at least 14.
While the Danube had already reached record levels in western Hungary early Friday, Budapest was set to bear the brunt after the weekend with forecasters predicting the river would rise more than double the level usual for the time of year.
“It is now clear that we are facing the worst floods of all time,” said Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who spent the night at a military barracks in the deluged western city of Gyor, said in a statement.
Hungary’s entire army has been mobilised while after several days of flooding in southern and eastern Germany, which has forced mass evacuations, around 11,300 soldiers have swung into action to help.
The head of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce Eric Schweitzer told Friday’s Rheinische Post newspaper that in some regions the damage may be greater than in devastating 2002 floods, whose economic cost had amounted to around 11 billion euros ($15 billion).
The flooding had already caused a provisional 172 million euros’ worth of damage to German agriculture, fisheries and forests by Wednesday, an agricultural ministry spokesman told reporters Friday.
In the medieval city of Magdeburg in Saxony-Anhalt state, the Elbe surpassed the seven-metre mark reaching a new historic high, while little respite was on the horizon in Bitterfeld, visited Thursday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Thousands more residents were urged to leave their homes as a lake threatened to flood parts of the city.
Meanwhile dozens of army and Red Cross vehicles were parked at the entry to Muehlberg, in Brandenburg state, 150 kilometres (90 miles) south of the capital Berlin, where more than half of the 4,000 inhabitants have been evacuated.
“We are afraid. But we must wait here until that’s over because we have animals,” Silke Christen, 47, who has a horsemeat butchers shop, told AFP.
Volunteers scrambled to fill sandbags as the Elbe reached 9.9 metres, just 10 centimetres below the maximum the dykes are thought to be able to resist.
“As you can see, it’s urgent,” a soldier commented.
Water levels were slowly falling in the historic eastern cities of Dresden and Halle, where 30,000 people have been evacuated after recent days saw the highest water level in 400 years on a local tributary, as well as in southern Bavaria.
However conditions remained difficult in the Bavarian rural district of Deggendorf which earlier in the week was cut off from the outside world.
After Merkel pledged aid of at least 100 million euros ($130 million), visiting Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh brought two tonnes of dates for flood victims and another offer of help came from the region’s footballing heroes.
Bayern Munich which recently scored its own place in history by becoming the first German club to win the Bundesliga, German Cup and the Champions League in the same campaign, announced a charity match in aid of flood victims.
Police in the Czech Republic announced two men drowned near Vyssi Brod, in the southwest, seven kilometres from the Austrian border, while rafting on the flooded Vltava river despite warnings, bringing the death toll there to 10.
Czech residents hit by the floods brought on by torrential spring rain began returning to their homes with mixed emotions — some in despair, others happy to have saved what they could.
Jiri Kozak, visibly moved, described how he managed to rescue his private zoo of 50 animal species including parrots, snakes, turtles and kangaroos, in the flooded southern village of Putim, before the flood wave came.
“I was afraid many animals will die, I was telling myself I should apologise to them for having them here,” he told the public Czech TV.
For some, the floods will only compound the damage from 2002.
“Many houses still don’t have facades because they haven’t repaired them since the last time,” Josef Mlejnek told Czech TV as he toured by motor boat the vilage of Horin, at the confluence of the swollen Vltava and Elbe rivers.
In Austria authorities remained vigilant with more rain expected Sunday despite receding water levels.