After The Flood

The rains came and came. In the city, life went on as usual; when the rivers first began to rise, people walking their dogs on Žofín island stopped only briefly to notice the water lapping up the shores of the island, a little higher than usual. Then, as the first shots of flooded villages appeared on TV, came the questions.Why hadn’t the controllers of the river dam system, designed to prevent just such an event, let out the water? It turned out that they all knew about it, but typical post-Bolsevik manners (I’m the dam operator-don’t tell me what to do…and besides, I have to check the book) and bureaucratic restrictions led to the usual paralysis of action.

And so, the water came up 25 feet in Prague, stopping just three feet from Národní třida and the steps of the National Theater. Neverthless, it did manage to flood entire islands and sections of the city, as well as seep into basements of buildings where the streets were dry. One impressive piece of work by the authorities was the swift erection of steel barricades at certain points of the river to keep the water out. Otherwise, it was the usual Czech scenario: the authorities failed, but the people did not.

There were countless tales of heroism, from daring rescues to crews working round the clock to save buildings, property, and bridges. As opposed to that, Prague’s mayor Igor Němec blithely told citizens to get a good night’s sleep before the onslaught of the largest wave. Instead of apologising the next day, he defended his position by stating that he had been “misinformed.” Indeed. President Havel – it seems a bit reluctantly – returned from his holiday in Portugal to Prague, but except for a small newspaper piece buried on page 2 in the paper, was absent at the national level. If he feels the need to speak to the entire nation on TV every New Year’s day, why did he not do so now, when over 50 percent of Czech lands were declared a state of emergency? Perhaps if his basement was flooded, he might have. At the cabinet level, things were not much better. Though premier Špidla declared that the cabinet was in “constant session,” he too didn’t feel the need to address the nation on TV. No crisis team was put together and no official timetable of updates or conferences was issued. Instead, public TV and the press admirably took up the role of coordinating the information campaign.

Perhaps our politicians will learn, perhaps they won’t. But the key lies in just what effect this crisis will have on the public. For fifty years, we Czechs have not had much chance to deal with crises ourselves. Subsequently, as a nation, we lack a clear idea of just what it means to be a Czech. Now, with the rebuilding, and our fellow citizens reaching out to each other not just for sandbags, but for empathy and support, we may get a good chance to learn.


The New Presenceautumn 2002

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