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German chancellor promises no area will be abandoned to rising floods

July 29, 1997

BAD FREIENWALDE, Germany (AP) _ While hundreds of soldiers reinforced a weakened and porous dike, Chancellor Helmut Kohl reassured residents along the swollen Oder River on Tuesday that protecting Germany’s eastern edge from inundation was a ``national task.″

Speaking of solidarity, and referring to ``a region hard hit by fate over the last 50 years,″ Kohl told former East Germans, who have supported him in two elections since unification in 1990, that they were not alone.

``My most important message now is that (east Germans) feel affection and sympathy, not only in words but in deeds,″ said Kohl, who interrupted his vacation in Austria to tour the flood-threatened region for a second time.

Villagers living near the weakening dike took a break from shoveling sand into sacks to listen to the chancellor. But they had more immediate concerns than Kohl’s solidarity talk.

``What can he say to us?″ asked a skeptical Eberhard Gaertner before Kohl’s arrival in Altreetz, one of 18 villages in the most immediate danger. ``If the dike breaks, not even a chancellor can do anything more.″

The north-flowing Oder, which forms a natural border between Poland and Germany, started flooding early this month. Flooding killed about 100 people in Poland and the Czech Republic, but Germany has avoided casualties since the high waters hit July 17.

Just a few miles away in Hohenwutzen, 700 soldiers and 200 volunteers reinforced a 250-year-old dike with sandbags while water gurgled up beneath it. Helicopters dropped more sandbags.

The aged dike was holding, but Brandenburg Environment Minister Matthias Platzeck warned it could break at any time.

About 5,000 people have been evacuated from the low-lying region, known as the Oderbruch, and officials recommended the nearly 10,000 remaining residents leave as well.

Another flood surge was moving through western Poland on Tuesday. Polish officials said about 14,000 people may be evacuated from the Zielona Gora region, near the border between Germany, Czech Republic and Poland, because dikes built early this century were in danger of breaking.

In the Oderbruch region, some locals worried that the soldiers had given up on the main dike and were concentrating on building up another behind their villages as a second line of defense.

After the 100-mile-long dike broke upriver last week, flooding small settlements in the low-lying Ziltendorf region, some residents accused officials of allowing floodwaters to overwhelm them to save the city of Frankfurt an der Oder.

But Kohl said no one was being sacrificed. ``It’s important to you that the main dike hold, and everything humanly possible will be done for that,″ he told village leader. ``We’re sending new people, and will defend every meter.″

Kohl said that after the crisis passes, officials will determine whether the dikes are sufficient protection against future flooding.

He also renewed a pledge for speedy financial support to victims. After a visit to the region last week, he promised more than $110 million in emergency aid and low-interest loans to repair flood damage.

The German reinsurer Munich Re estimated flood losses at between $1.6 billion and $2.8 billion each for Poland and the Czech Republic.

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