April 25, 2006

Hundreds of Romanians flee homes as dikes break

By Aurora Martiniuc and Marius Zaharia

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Hundreds of Romanians were fleeing
their homes in impoverished rural areas on Tuesday as rescue
teams struggled to reinforce dikes holding back the swollen
Danube river, officials said.

Heavy rain and melting snow have swollen waterways and
inundated vast tracts of land in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and
Hungary this month, making thousands of people homeless.

In Romania, the worst-hit country where tens of thousands
of hectares are submerged, some 4,000 people have moved to high
ground since Sunday after earth-work dikes near poor southern
villages collapsed, putting the total of evacuees at 9,520.

In the village of Bechet, some 900 people have fled their
houses, many made from mud bricks, and rescuers were rushing
out hundreds more after a nearby dike burst.

"The dike we are trying to build since this morning has
already four rows of sandbags, but still I don't think we can
raise it faster than the water is rising," Bechet mayor
Constantin Oclei told Reuters.

A police helicopter saved 11 people trapped on isolated
plots of land near Bechet surrounded by swollen waters who had
initially refused to leave.

Further downstream in villages of Oltina and Spantov,
authorities said evacuations had stopped as the Danube receded
from century highs, but soldiers kept reinforcing flood
defenses using bulldozers and trucks in case water levels rise

"There is still a risk that more dikes will fall as
pressure remains very high with water two meters (six ft) above
flooding levels at some places," said Elena Anghel, hydrologist
at Romania's National Hydrology Institute.

Authorities were considering whether to carry out more
controlled flooding on the Danube to reduce water pressure on
soaked dikes after having swamped around 48,000 hectares of
land over the past week.

The floods forced hundreds of Romanians to spend Orthodox
Easter Sunday -- a closely observed holiday in the Balkans --
in a bleak refugee camp away from their flooded village with
little hope of returning home.


In Hungary, the swollen Tisza river retreated slightly on
Tuesday, but authorities said 4,000 people have been working
overnight at its confluence with the Koros river to plug large
cracks in a dike. Over 2,000 people have been evacuated so far.

"The situation is extremely critical," Gyula Reich,
Environment and Water Ministry spokesman told Reuters. "The
rivers are retreating slowly. It could take another 10-12 days
and meanwhile the dikes are getting soaked."

In the town of Szolnok, the Tisza water level stood at
10.06 meters on Tuesday, just 7 centimeters off its peak.

The Balkans are still reeling from devastating floods which
killed scores of people and left thousands homeless last
summer. The Danube originates in Germany and flows through or
forms borders with 10 countries before emptying into the Black

Bulgarian officials said the Danube fell by 23 centimeters
over the past 24 hours in one of the worst affected towns of
Nikopol and between two and seven centimeters at other places.

"If this trend continues and there is no rain, the river
will be back in its banks in seven to eight days," said head of
the Pleven civil defense Georgi Linkov.

(Additional reporting by Kremena Miteva, Andras Gergely,
Radu Marinas, Aurora Martiniuc and Marius Zaharia)