Across flooded Europe, the hard part begins

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

ROTTENEGG, Austria-- Tight-lipped and teary-eyed, Henrietta Karl leaned on her shovel Tuesday amid the tangle of muddy debris that trashed her home and offered this requiem to Europe's worst flooding in well over a century: "Now the real work begins: rebuilding a life."

As the waters ebb, the enormity of the destruction is starting to sink in. Hundreds of thousands of Austrians, Czechs and Germans are struggling to mop up an estimated $20 billion worth of damage and salvage what they can.

"It was very, very bad," said Karl, 62. "Everything, and I mean everything, was underwater. All of my flowers, all of my shrubs -- they're gone. I'm lucky I still have a house."

It's what Ernst Strasser, Austria's interior minister, meant when he told the nation a few days ago: "The worst hours are behind us, but the most difficult days lie before us."

Germans, too, know the feeling, even as the swollen Elbe River continues to inflict fresh destruction on dozens of towns and villages.

In Dresden and other places where the waters were receding, residents crept cautiously back to their homes Tuesday to examine their sodden belongings and determine what might dry out -- and what was ruined for good.

Sabine Wilmer's home in Dessau on the rain-engorged Mulde River was spared, but the 38-year-old teacher was blinking back tears after wading through knee-deep water to the flooded school where her son studies.

"All the things that he loved there are underwater," she said. "Who knows if any of this is insured?"

Could have been worse

Mingled with the despair was relief among some that it could have been much worse.

"I was so lucky," said Nicole Aurich, 25, hauling debris from the basement of her four-story apartment building near the Elbe, where the water line was still visible about a yard up the outside wall.

"I lost only a backpack, some books and things in the basement -- nothing important," she said, wearing yellow knee-high rubber boots and rubber gloves.

But heartbreak played out across the flood-stricken Czech Republic, where the worst flooding in 175 years drove at least 150 families from their homes in Prague.

Starting over

Jitka Zichova, 60, who fled her apartment with just a few clothes after floodwaters reached the second floor, spent Tuesday rummaging with long, blue rubber gloves through a large pile of mud-caked trash containing her belongings.

"What I miss the most are the photographs. We lost our wedding pictures," she said, bursting into tears. "Now we are beggars. I never want to have any possessions again."

A few houses away -- down a foul-smelling street lined with mud-caked mattresses, waterlogged books and ruined electronic equipment -- Karel Hajek stood in front of the home he built 40 years ago.

"I didn't have insurance," Hajek, 73, mused sadly.

His neighbor, Jan Adamek, lost all of his clothing, books, a washing machine, a television set and other electronic gear in a mire of mud, floodwater and sewage. "We'll have to start from scratch," he said.

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