August 2002   česky

Five years ago Moravia and Silesia were racked by the worst flooding to hit this country in half a century. There were complaints at the time that the authorities had moved too slowly, that they would have handled the situation better had Prague been in danger. The critics were proved wrong this month when huge swaths of the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria were completely inundated by floodwaters and the authorities moved no more quickly to save Prague than did any other part of the country. They certainly had plenty of time to prepare. It had been a wet summer, the dams were full and several historic towns upstream of Prague had already been flooded. But the mayor saw no reason for alarm. Please, continue to use the metro, he implored residents. They did so and the last train came to a stop 20 minutes before water started pouring into its tunnels. The metro was designed to shelter thousands of people in the event a dam bursts, but good luck trying to get them in there now. The transit authority was apparently in no hurry to shut the pressure-tight doors for the tunnels, even after the situation had become critical. But in this flood, nobody was in a hurry. The zoo, which is located next to the river, stayed open until just hours before the river crested. Only when its director was up to his ass in water did he realize his animals were too. The ducks and swans easily paddled away, but what to do with an old lion and bear? Shoot them, of course. The same fate also fell on the elephant Kadir, who at one point was snorkeling through his trunk to stay alive. The director, Petr Fejk, made sure the whole world understood that Kadir was an aggressive sort and there simply wasn't enough time to deal with his bad attitude. The toll would also include Gaston, a sea lion that became a media star after eluding the zoo's attempts to recapture him. He made it as far as Germany before being snared, but the stress proved too much for him in the end and he died in Berlin. Fejk, who managed a rock club before taking over at the zoo, later blasted the mayor for the faulty information he was giving out concerning the scale of the flood. The mayor's response was, "Don't look at me, I'm not a water engineer." Nor much of a politician, it would seem. By the time they get the metro fully functioning again, he'll be out of a job. So will the president, who was vacationing at his private villa in Portugal, where the weather was hot and sunny, when the flooding first hit South Bohemia. Havel didn't return to Prague until after the city was already swamped. He claimed there was no seat available for him on a plane before that time. His wife, who arrived a couple days after he did, came up with an even better lie when she said there was no room for her on his flight, nor any room for her dog Sugar on subsequent flights. The president would later go so far as to pen an article proclaiming the flood had brought the people together in solidarity and now was the time to throw off the stereotype of the Czech Republic as a land of self-centered and cynical ne'er-do-wells. And stories abound of people struggling to save their homes and shops, of zookeepers rescuing what animals they could, of volunteers cleaning up the Jewish Cemetery at the former concentration camp in Terezin. But the outside world, which was all but oblivious to the floods that had devastated Moravia and Silesia, knows only about the metro and the zoo, about the chemical factory that kept quiet about the chlorine gas released during the flooding, about the fishermen who prevented the residents of one village from dumping water out of the local reservoir. They were afraid of losing their fish stock, which they lost anyway, along with half the village, when the dike burst. But all this occurred at the height of the flood, when nobody could be certain about its exact magnitude. Havel's plea was for a new beginning, an end to the petty griping that has gripped this country lately. So far, the results are mixed. There have been donations and concerts to benefit the victims. The purchase of Grippen jet fighters, which has bitterly divided the political landscape, is now a dead issue. And yet the prime minister seems ready to keep it divided with his proposal of a "millionaire's tax" to pay for the cleanup cost, of providing more state assistance to those who didn't have flood insurance than those who did. Moreover, the griping has taken on absurd proportions with the announcement that the head of the Prague Rescue Unit plans to file charges against a woman he had personally rescued by boat. He's angry with her for bitching the whole time she was in the boat, for not being humble enough before her rescuers. Since there is no specific law against being a bitch, as it were, his office is looking for a precedent. If he finds one, Sugar can look forward to spending even more dog days in Portugal.