As the people of Halle in southeastern Germany battle the Saale river, which has flooded much of the downtown and driven about 30,000 residents from their homes, they are getting help from an unlikely source: the British postal service.
Hundreds of light blue sandbags marked “Royal Mail, Great Britain,” line the streets of Halle, holding the Saale back from flooding even more of the historic centre.
No one seems to know where the large plastic mailing sacks with the Royal Mail’s crown logo came from, but they stand out against the other sandbags, which have no markings and look tattered.
Some people say the bags came from Hamburg, others claim they were donated by a kind businessman and few think maybe the Brits had something to do with it.
“They just showed up,” said Franziska Richter, as she stood in front of her flooded apartment building. Down the street from her neighbours were filling the blue bags with sand from a small pile.
Officials at the Royal Mail seem just as perplexed. “We’re scratching our heads here,” spokeswoman Mish Tuller said in an e-mail from London. While it would like to help, the Royal Mail has not donated the bags.
The post office does have a major operations centre in Hamburg that handles parcel deliveries in Europe, but Mr. Tuller checked with that office and was told it did not contribute any bags either. More likely, she surmised, the bags were among the thousands that have been sent to British military bases. “Over the years a number may not have been returned. There’s always more outbound than inbound mail – as families send parcels overseas to our troops,” she said. “These have somehow found their way to Halle.”
No one in Halle is complaining as the Royal Mail bags seem to work better than the others. And for now no more bags are needed. The water has been receding slowing since Thursday, amid hot sunny weather. But other parts of Central Europe have not been so lucky.
Hungary is bracing for the worst flooding in its history as the Danube keeps rising and is expected to top its record high of 8.6 metres over the weekend. Evacuation plans are underway to move out as many as 55,000 people and 11,000 soldiers have been dispatched to the most endangered areas. “It is now clear that we are facing the worst floods of all time,” said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
But in Germany the worst appears to be over. In Dresden, about two hours east of Halle, the Elbe River rose dangerously high but did not threaten the downtown and is now slowly receding. By Thursday evening the raging water had become something of a tourist attraction, with people packed along one of the city’s bridges taking pictures and comparing notes about the water level.