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Receding Rivers Pose New Threat to Weakened Dikes

February 3, 1995

TIEL, Netherlands (AP) _ Ancient dikes held up precariously today as flooded rivers receded, but the soaked, earthen walls still must be shored up before thousands of people can return to their homes in southeastern Netherlands.

Water flowing through the weakened embankments spouted up in village streets and emergency workers tried to plug dike holes with sandbags.

``The dikes are very wet but stable,″ said Elli Willink, a spokeswoman for Gelderland province. ``But we don’t know yet when people can go home.″

About 250,000 people fled low-lying towns this week when flood waters that killed 30 people across northwestern Europe drained into the Netherlands.

The swollen rivers strained the vast, centuries-old network of earthen dikes that protect Dutch farmland reclaimed from marshes and floodplains.

``When the pressure disappears, there’s a chance dikes will begin to float and shift,′ said regional dikemaster Jan Boer. ``They begin to tear and the whole dike can be torn open.″

The evacuated area in southeastern Netherlands covers about 400 square miles, protected by about 300 miles of weakened dikes. Its farms produce much of the Netherlands’ cattle and fruit.

The area was eerily silent today, devoid of people and animals after residents fled with their livestock to temporary shelters. Police patrolled the area following reports of some looting.

Authorities said casualties would be unlikely even if a dike collapsed.

The swollen Waal River was expected to fall by 16 inches today, 28 inches on Saturday and another 17 inches on Sunday, said Piet van der Ham, regional leader of the flood coordination unit.

In the village of Opijnen, police fanned out today to try to plug the weakened dike with sandbags as water spouted into the street.

Police spokesman Piet Versteegt said the water level had dropped by about three feet, but ``the situation is still critical.″

``This is our silent enemy,″ he said. ``As long as the water welling up remains clear, it’s okay. But if it turns muddy it’s critical″ because that means the dike is crumbling from the inside.

Bas Hartman, who has lived near the dike for 27 years, said he was confident the crisis would be averted. ``In all the years I’ve been here, I have seen seepage water like this five times. They are keeping it under control,″ Hartman said.

In the town of Lobith, near where the Rhine River flows out of Germany and into the Waal, water levels were 54 feet on Thursday, compared with the normal level of about 40 feet. The Rhine peaked at 55 feet this week.

The last of Tiel’s residents left Thursday under threat of fines and jail if they stayed. Many left reluctantly.

``If the authorities hadn’t told people to leave, nobody would have left,″ Dirk Roodbeen, who grew up among the dikes in nearby Casteren, said Thursday.

Tiel Mayor Ed van Tellingen estimated flood damage and economic losses at several hundred million dollars for each day of the crisis.

People began to return to towns in Limburg province, and officials said today they expect all 13,000 evacuated residents to be back by Saturday.

But before the evacuees can return to Gelderland province, workers are faced with the monumental task of stabilizing vast stretches of the soaked dikes.

Much of the dike system in Gelderland and Limburg provinces dates back to the Middle Ages, and the government is being accused of not doing enough to maintain them.

Traffic and Waterways Minister Annemarie Jorritsma promised Thursday in parliament to speed up their reinforcement and renovation.

In 1953, more than 1,800 people drowned when a pre-dawn storm surge overwhelmed North Sea dikes and flooded the southwestern coastal province of Zeeland.

Update hourly