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Netherlands Bears The Brunt Of European Flooding

January 31, 1995

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ Dozens of Dutch hamlets became ghost towns Tuesday as 70,000 people fled surging rivers that threatened to breach dikes and flood farmlands. At least one person drowned.

Flood waters that killed at least 26 people in northwestern Europe earlier this week began to recede. But the flooding wasn’t expected to peak until Wednesday in the Netherlands, where most land is below sea level.

On Monday, about 15,000 people left low-lying farmlands of their own volition. On Tuesday, the evacuations were mandatory: Dutch authorities declared a state of emergency and ordered tens of thousands of people out of ``polders,″ farmland reclaimed over the centuries from marsh and river basins.

An additional 100,000 people were asked to leave their homes voluntarily and were told that evacuations would become mandatory Thursday if the threat continues.

Dozens of Dutch farming hamlets along the Maas and Waal rivers were deserted Tuesday, residents fleeing with little more than the clothes on their backs.

``The rest of the village has gone,″ a teen-age girl walking with three children down the empty street of one village told Dutch Television. ``But we still have some animals with us and we cannot leave them behind.″

More than a hundred buses rounded up people in the Bommelerwaard, Wamel, Druten and Ooijpolder and took them to evacuation centers. Officials said the evacuation was orderly.

Tens of thousands of farm animals also had to be shipped out of the polders to keep them from drowning.

Jan Roelofs, a crisis center spokesman in Nijmegen, said the dikes were ``stable, but weak.″ But if even one dike burst, some villages would be sunk in up to 16 feet of water. And water could submerge secondary highways and cut off escape routes.

``I have 6,000 chickens,″ screamed one farmer over the telephone to the local crisis center at the Waal River town of Beneden-Leeuwen. ``I am staying put. You don’t get me out.″

Dutch farmers prepared for the flood by shipping livestock to market early, since they wouldn’t be able to graze the animals on flooded land.

The flooding was the worst since 1953, when the North Sea dikes in the southern Zeeland province burst, killing more than 1,800 people. The dikes that were threatened Tuesday were not sea dikes, however, but river dikes, and the threat to life was believed to be less extreme.

The first death from the Dutch floods was reported Tuesday, a woman in the Waal River village of Winssen, said Ruud Schelder, a spokesman for the crisis center in the eastern city of Nijmegen.

Thousands of acres of land were under water. But dikes that keep the river water out of the reclaimed areas were holding, with flooding primarily near the banks of the Maas and Waal rivers.

The long lines of evacuation vehicles evoked images of World War II, when residents fled Dutch cities that sustained heavy bomb damage.

One old man told Dutch Television he had left everything to take refuge in Nijmegen. ``What else could I have done?″ he asked. ``I could have waited but then it would be too late.″

``My girl friend became hysterical ... We packed up all our stuff and left,″ another person told the television station after reaching a relief center. ``Everyone was on the road, there was traffic and you just can’t get anywhere.″

A thousand soldiers were brought in to assist in the evacuation effort and major Dutch highways were closed to all but emergency traffic to facilitate evacuations.

All canal barge shipping was halted in the area to prevent damage to the dikes.

Flooding, caused by the early melting of Alpine snows and heavy rain, wreaked deadly havoc elsewhere in northern Europe.

The official toll was 15 dead and five missing in France, at least four dead in Germany, five dead and one missing in Belgium, one dead in Luxembourg and one dead in Austria.

The flood waters were slowly receding across western Germany, after the Rhine crested in Cologne on Monday night at 35 feet 5 inches, equaling a record for this century set in 1926.

Cologne was probably the most heavily inundated German city, with most of the downtown area under about 6 feet of water. Many neighborhoods were passable only by boat.

Parts of other German cities, including Bonn, Frankfurt, Koblenz and Trier, also were flooded.

In Germany’s Kleve district across the Dutch border, authorities prepared for possible breaks in Dutch dikes by ordering 5,000 people to evacuate.

The hardest-hit area in France was in the far north, where rising waters from the river Meuse, as the Maas is known there, cut the town of Charleville-Mezieres in half.

In Belgium, water levels along most of the Meuse continued to slowly sink from record levels.

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