Painful wait for elderly forced to flee from Europe's worst flood in a decade

15,000 told to leave their homes east of the Elbe as water levels rise across Central Europe

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 2:28am


A group of elderly Germans resting in a school sports hall turned disaster evacuation centre are waiting out the worst flood to ever hit their city.

"The hardest thing is not knowing what to do," said Brigitte Ilsmann, 88, who has spent her life on the banks of the Elbe river. "You sit on a bench, talking with strangers and trying to kill time."

You don’t sleep well on a hard bed when you are 88 and there is a lot of noise

Evacuated from her care home, the old lady who moves with a walker took refuge in the facility where the Red Cross has set up cots with grey blankets and offers thermoses of coffee, baskets full of apples and biscuits.

Sitting on the cot assigned to her on arrival, Gisela Suhau, 77, recalled being scared when she saw the muddy flood water gush into her basement and turn the streets outside into rivers.

"We've never seen anything like it," she said - even in 2002 when "the floods of the century" hit the region in what was formerly communist East Germany.

"They told us to leave, so we took the bare essentials and came here," she said, adding that staying was not an option. "We had no electricity, you can't cook."

Up to 150 people can find refuge in the gymnasium, but the need is far greater. Authorities on Sunday urged 15,000 people to evacuate in areas east of the Elbe, where the water now reaches the tree tops.

Central Europe's worst floods in a decade also threatened Hungary after causing havoc in the Czech Republic and Austria. The river Danube reached a new record high in Budapest but the Hungarian capital's mayor sought to ease concerns, saying water levels were stabilising, although about 1,200 people were evacuated along the river.

The deluge has also sparked massive emergency responses in Austria and Slovakia.

A torrent of flood waters in Germany has turned vast areas into a brown water world, sparked a mass mobilisation of emergency workers and caused billions of euros in damage in what one lawmaker termed a "national catastrophe".

Rescue helicopters criss-crossed the sky and military armoured personnel carriers rumbled through the flood zone, where thousands of troops, firefighters and volunteers were frantically building up flood defences with sandbags.

Across central Europe, the floods have killed at least 18, including 10 in the Czech Republic.

The river banks of the Elbe, the level of which has risen to over three times its usual height, are now lined by piles of sandbags, heaped on by thousands of volunteers and firefighters to try to limit the scale of the disaster.

"Most of the evacuated people are actually staying with family members or friends," said Enrico Schmidt, a local Red Cross official. "People have also offered to host evacuees or made available holiday apartments."

For single people, mostly elderly, three emergency shelters have been set up in the city of 230,000 inhabitants, 150 kilometres southwest of Berlin.

"They are supported psychologically," Schmidt said. "We have everything we need for them."

But Ilsmann said "it is difficult to adapt. You don't sleep well on a hard bed when you are 88 and there is a lot of noise."

"We're talking with people, we laugh a little and pass the time," added Suhau.

In the evening, over a hot potato soup, the elderly people's faces looked tired and resigned to their fate as they ate, the silence interrupted only by emergency sirens and the rotor sounds of helicopters in the distance.