Babette Richter wiped her brow as she took a break from filling sandbags in front of her apartment in central Halle in southwestern Germany.
The street in front of her building was covered in muddy river water flowing with garbage. Several pumps were blasting out water from flooded basements in adjacent buildings and a man wearing hip waders pushed a pile of soggy debris from a doorway. Standing next to Ms. Richter was her sister, Franziska, whose weary expression belied the bright pink boots she wore. Both had been filling sandbags in the hot sun all day in the hope that the nearby Saale river would finally recede back to its normal level so they can begin the real work: a massive cleanup.
“It’s a mess,” Babette said firmly. “It’s a disaster.”
The sisters are among roughly 30,000 people who have been forced from their homes in Halle, a city of about 233,000 about two hours from Dresden. The Saale surged more than eight metres in a matter of days this week, moving so fast some residents barely had time to get out with a few belongings. It is the worst flooding to hit the area in 400 years, and it has left many residents like Jo Schaller reliant on a rowboat to get to his home. “I bought this last year,” Mr. Schaller said nodding to the small boat after he pulled up on dry land for a quick trip to the store. “I never thought I’d have to use it for something like this.”
Rivers have overflowed across central Europe after one of the wettest springs on record, causing some of the worst flooding in decades. The flooding has killed 16 people and wreaked havoc with businesses that rely on waterways like the Elbe and Danube to move products. Germany has sent 60,000 emergency personnel to help affected communities and more than 16,000 soldiers have been put on duty fighting the rising rivers. There are estimates that Germany alone could see a record $7.9-billion in flood damage. About 700 cities and towns in the Czech Republic have also been flooded, with 20,500 people being evacuated. And in Slovakia, the Danube has surpassed historic levels with no sign of slowing down.
The months of rainfall let up on Thursday, as blazing sun and hot temperatures broke out across much of Germany. That helped the Saale recede about half a metre and bring some life back into hard-hit places like Halle.
For business owners like Thomas Nehring, there is also the real worry about the cost of the flood. Mr. Nehring co-owns a building that is standing in nearly two metres of river water. He lives on the top floor with his wife and son and uses one room on the first floor as an office for his interior-design business. He also rents some space to an artist. Now all but the top floor is uninhabitable, and Mr. Nehring has no flood insurance. He and others couldn’t get coverage because the downtown is too close to the river, even though the water has never gone up much beyond its banks before. “We hope for help from the government,” Mr. Nehring said. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised financial assistance, but so far there have been few details.
This should have been a happy time in Halle, which prides itself on its cultural heritage and being home to two universities and several research institutes. The city is the birthplace of George Frideric Handel, and every year it hosts the Handel Festival, which draws visitors from around the world for 10 days of outdoor concerts. This year’s festival was to begin on Thursday, but instead of music lovers strolling along the medieval cobblestones, the streets were lined with sandbags or sunk under water.
But not everyone is gloomy. The first glimpse of summer temperatures has brightened spirits and brought people outside to cafes and shops. The 500-year old Moritzburg Fortress, only a few metres from the river, was also open and attracting a smattering of visitors. And even some of those who stopped to look in on their flooded homes were eating ice cream or enjoying a beer in the warm sun.
“Hey, I’m alive,” said Christoph Augustin, a business student who had to leave his one-bedroom apartment and stay with his girlfriend. He has been told that it may take five weeks for the building to be cleaned and electricity restored. That didn’t seem to bother him. “So far so good,” he said with a big smile standing outside his building in hip waders as the river water swirled around him.