April 22, 2006

Balkan Rivers Swollen but Relief in Sight

By Martin Dokoupil

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Soldiers and volunteers battled floodwaters and evacuated people in southeastern Europe on Saturday, but officials were optimistic the Danube and other rivers would retreat from record-high levels in coming days.

Fed by rain and melting snow, swollen waterways swamped vast tracts of land in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary this week, driving over 10,000 people to higher ground.

In Romania, the worst-hit country, authorities ordered the evacuation of 300 people from the southeastern village of Oltina close to the Bulgarian border after the Danube broke through a nearby dam. Rescue teams also rushed to save homes by erecting sandbag dikes.

"We have started to evacuate people from 130 houses. Most of them took animals and belongings and went to friends and relatives," Danut Culetu, prefect of Constanta county, told Reuters.

Rescue workers had to break through a major dike in the Danube delta to protect low-lying villages on Friday, but authorities now said the worst may be behind them.

"The forecasts are optimistic. The river will probably remain stable for another two days and then start to fall," said Elena Anghel, hydrologist at Romania's National Hydrology Institute.


In Hungary, 1,200 troops and as many volunteers worked through the night after cracks appeared in a dike protecting villages near the confluence of the Koros and Tisza rivers.

A day before the second round of Hungary's parliamentary election, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany traveled to the area to persuade people to leave because of the cracks in the dike.

"I do not want to come back again here in the coming days, because if I do it will mean the situation has got worse," he said.

Officials began forcing 3,500 people to leave after many ignored an earlier order to evacuate. A team of 13 psychologists was also drafted in to talk the residents into moving out.

"We are Roma, 35 of us are hitting the road, the whole family, with children, grandchildren, and grandmothers," Gaspar Szalai told Nepszabadsag daily as he left the village Szeleveny.

Thousands of livestock were also moved out of the area.

Europe's second-longest river, the Danube originates in Germany and flows through or forms borders with 10 countries before emptying into the Black Sea. It is the second time floods have ravished the region in a year. Last summer, swollen rivers killed scores of people and left thousands homeless.

Authorities were also optimistic in Serbia, where the Tisa river was expected to peak. They said the water should remain high for two more weeks but reinforced dikes should hold.

"The defenses are stable and well maintained. We do not expect major problems," said director of Vojvodina Waters Branislav Radovanovic.

In Bulgaria, heavy rain continued as authorities set up evacuation points for 760 people in the town of Ryahovo, near the port of Rousse, as the swollen Danube strained against waterlogged dikes in danger of collapse.

To the west in Vidin, more than 2,000 people, mostly poor gypsies, also known as Roma, from a low-lying ghetto in the city's outskirts, have been evacuated. Rainfall has undermined most of the roads leading to the city, complicating relief efforts.

Back in Romania, 4,000 people from Rast, a poor southern village, spent a fifth night in schools, hospitals, tents -- a bleak setting for Sunday's Orthodox Easter.

(Additional reporting by Aurora Martiniuc, Kremena Miteva, Andras Gergely, and Branimir Pipal)