Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.
As the summer comes to a close, I thought it would be interesting to look at my most vivid memory from the last couple of months in Prague – the giant flood that came to town in June.
2013 has been a popular year for disastrous floods around the world. India, Alberta, Eastern Australia, and Central Europe have all been hit hard in the last eight months. While Prague wasn’t damaged as much as these other places, it was still unlike anything I’d ever experienced in the city.
The first weeks of the summer brought nearly non-stop rain to Prague, resulting in some of the most miserable days imaginable. I looked in some old journals from June to remind myself how bad it was and the term “uncomfortable and antagonizing rain” aptly captured the spirit. The sheer volume of rainfall, mixed with the helpless feeling that it would never stop, really does turn everyone in town (myself included) into a giant prick. The worst part was that it was June and no one was able to sit outside and enjoy a beer. That’s a Czech summer institution for Christ’s sake!
After a couple days of everyone getting soaked, the f-word started to emerge. Flood.
It’s no term to throw around haphazardly in this country. In 2002, Prague experienced its worst flood in history, as entire neighbourhoods ended up underwater. Public transit came to a halt, 40,000 residents were evacuated and 17 people died. Students had told me all kinds of stories about what the city was like that summer, and none of it sounded very appealing.
But then the rain kept falling and falling hard. The threat of flooding went from, “I sure hope that doesn’t happen,’ to ‘Uh-oh, this might actually happen.’
On Sunday morning my girlfriend and I went out to grab some groceries and on the way to the shop we noticed a crowd of people gathered around a stream in our neighbourhood, taking pictures and looking awestruck. It was out of place.
The stream, Botič, runs from south-eastern Prague and feeds into the Vltava River. The water flowing through the stream travels slowly on a good day, so it’s never been very interesting to watch.
We expected to see a small rise in Botič’s water level, but the water in this normally lethargic creek was now charging through the city at street level.
We decided that the food could wait and the best course of action would be to walk over to the Vltava, the city’s alpha river, to see how bad it’d gotten. Once more, we both underestimated how much water there would be. For starters, the riverside walkway had been closed down. That is to say, it was nowhere to be seen. The Vltava had doubled its width and indefinitely submerged the summer’s most satisfying and social sidewalk.
Most of the city was gawking at what the riverside had turned into overnight. The often bustling promenade looked lonely, with only the top-halves of signs sticking out of the conquering water.
Our minds immediately went negative when we saw our favourite beer shacks submerged. My girlfriend turned to me and let out a worried prediction: “If they’re as damaged as they look, this could be a long summer.”
The one positive to be taken from all that property damage was that the increased water level had turned the river into Christmastime for swans. The infamous Vltava swans, known for their aggressiveness, had taken over the entire riverside. There were no more boats, no more tourists, no overzealous dogs, and free reign to feast on all the delicacies that overflowing garbage cans could offer (and they did so with great enthusiasm).
Later that night the rain stopped so we did what nearly everyone else in the city did: we went for a flood walk. Cameras in hand we ventured to Folimanka, a nearby park which had been transformed into a lake.
That little stream Botič was the culprit this time, going Grinch heart and growing three-sizes that day, drowning most of the park. Mother nature had mockingly monkey-pawed my onetime wish to live by the waterfront.
As we walked back home, it became clear that there was a very real threat the water would reach our building. We were two blocks away from Botič and cars in the area were being towed off the street, while city workers piled sandbags in front of front doors.
It also became clear that Prague was ready to respond to a major flood. The city had gone through it before in 2002 and enough resources had been set aside to ensure that future floods don’t come close to inflicting the damage that occurred a decade ago. Granted, the water was about a third as vicious this time around, but it was clear that the municipal and federal governments had a handle on the situation. Immediately the metro system was shut down, doomsday flood barriers were erected all around town, and websites were feeding constant updates to the people of Prague (even in English, which is a luxury so rarely afforded here). The most vulnerable areas were evacuated preventatively (including zoo animals) and sandbags were shipped all around town. It was an impressive and stark contrast to the response in Alberta two weeks later, which, like a lot of Canada, has an infrastructure ill-suited to limit the damage of catastrophic flooding.
The water levels peaked on Monday morning and, thankfully, never made it to our place. Although a lot of people experienced some discomfort from another few days of pouring rain and a half-closed transit system, the city carried on and recovered within a week or so. A lot of places in central Europe – Germany and other locations in the Czech Republic – were hit harder and had more demanding recoveries.
These days the riverside is back to normal, the swans have yielded some territory, and the beer shacks are open once more. Having never seen anything like it before, that flood was one of the most unforgettable memories of the summer.