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Germany’s flooded river crumbles dike, villagers flee

July 26, 1997

FRANKFURT AN DER ODER, Germany (AP) _ In cars crammed with clothes and furniture, thousands of people fled for higher ground Friday and early Saturday after the raging Oder River started eating through another patch of flood-sodden, earthen dike.

The stretch of dike _ along a low-lying plain north of Frankfurt an der Oder _ is all that stands between 20 villages and the pressure of Central Europe’s worst flood in two centuries.

At 4 a.m. Saturday, the Interior Ministry said the dike was still holding and that some 5,000 people had fled homes threatened by the flooding river.

More than a dozen helicopters lowered nets filled with sandbags over the dam, and soldiers managed to patch the 150-foot-long gap before much water could push through. But the grassy barrier is in danger of washing away, and the government ordered about a quarter of the region’s 20,000 residents to leave.

``Whoever thinks it won’t get really bad is risking his life,″ Brandenburg state Interior Minister Alwin Ziel said Friday, pointing to the town of Aurith, upriver, where residents had not believed the waters would break through.

Many of their houses were now flooded to the roofs, after the dike broke for the first time on Wednesday and inundated several towns and villages to the south.

Heavy rain started swelling the Oder’s banks about three weeks ago in Poland and Czech Republic, where floods killed at least 100 people. Since then the deluge has moved steadily downstream _ or north _ into eastern Germany, straining the dike that runs for about 95 miles along the river.

Trucks carrying soldiers, firefighters, rubber rafts and sandbags have covered the highways of the lush, hilly region for days, part of the government’s massive military relief effort. On high areas, luxury buses ferry tourists from town to picturesque town as usual, while army helicopters buzz overhead.

The government has been urging people to stay away from the river to prevent traffic tie-ups. Yet ``flood tourism″ was being encouraged by at least one entrepreneur, whose handwritten fliers in Berlin advertised Cadillac limousine trips to the floods for 120 marks per person.

More than 8,000 soldiers have been put to work on flood relief, and German leaders have promised financial aid to victims. Despite their efforts, the stretch of dike that broke Wednesday, just south of Frankfurt an der Oder, burst in two more spots late Wednesday and early Thursday.

Under the glare of outdoor lights, soldiers sweated through the night to save three villages from the rush of water coming from about 4 1/2 miles away.

At 2 a.m. Friday, the water was a few yards from the freshly built barriers in the village of Wiesenau. By daybreak, it was inches from the barrier’s top and seeping though the sandbags. And by the end of the day, officials said, the village would be under 7 feet of water.

Some Wiesenau homes were already partly underwater. Residents waded in backyards, pants rolled up to their thighs, moving wood and garden equipment to dry ground. In the village center, some people stuffed sand into burlap sacks while others fortified themselves with coffee and beer after a sleepless night.

``We expect the worst,″ said Reimar Voegele, the supervising mayor of Wiesenau and the other two villages, Ziltendorf and Vogelsand.

Standing on a cobblestone street corner, the mayor fielded complaints and concerns. A woman was angry that soldiers didn’t stay to help people move out furniture. A man was worried police would order an evacuation like they did earlier this week _ an order most people ignored.

``I’ll drown with the village,″ said Rainer Bublak, whose house sits on high _ and so far, dry _ land.

Up north, residents of the Oderbruch plains region were far less defiant. Some of the rolling land is as low as 7 feet under river level, and people have been prepared to leave for days. Trucks and buses were at the ready.

Shifts of 750 soldiers each were assigned to work through the night to pile more sandbags and gravel on the weak patch, and officials said they would not know until Saturday morning whether the dike would hold.

If the dam breaks, villagers have about two hours to get out.

At the Mueller Nursery, gardeners opened the doors of the greenhouses in hopes the floods would simply sweep through, leaving little damage.

Owner Andrea Mueller was doubtful she would unload much inventory before the crisis ends: ``Who wants to buy flowers in the middle of a catastrophe?″

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