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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Floods Threaten Prague's Old Town

APVolunteers filling bags with sand to protect the Old Town Square in Prague against the rising Vltava River on Tuesday.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Tens of thousands of Czechs fled their historic capital for higher ground Tuesday as torrential rains turned the Vltava River into a menacing cascade and unleashed flooding elsewhere in Europe that killed at least 88 people.

Churning toward Prague's Old Town, the heart of the capital and a popular tourist stop, the brown and swollen Vltava inflicted the worst flooding in more than a century on the Czech Republic.

Officials said at least nine people died after more than a week of heavy rainfall. At least seven people died in neighboring Austria, where firefighters and Red Cross volunteers were feverishly stacking sandbags to hold back parts of the swollen Danube River, which flooded Vienna's port and some low-lying streets.

The Danube punched through dams in Ybbs in the province of Lower Austria on Wednesday, and emergency workers in hip boots gingerly waded along railroad tracks, pulling out debris.

The Defense Ministry said 8,000 soldiers were battling floods in the hard-hit province of Upper Austria and along the Danube. Authorities said the flooding touched an estimated 60,000 Austrians, who were either evacuated from their homes or suffered flood damage. In Salzburg province, more than 1,000 buildings were under water.

Most of Europe's flooding casualties were in Russia, where at least 58 people were killed late last week -- mostly tourists who were vacationing on the Black Sea and ambushed by flood waters that swept cars and tents out to sea.

In Germany, where firefighters and soldiers were stacking sandbags to reinforce strained river banks, a 71-year-old man drowned Monday night in flooding in Dresden, and a cascade of mud and water swept away two adults and a child Tuesday, German authorities said.

Numerous dams were in danger of breaking in towns along the Danube near Passau, a city on the Austrian border whose old town was completely submerged Tuesday.

In the Czech Republic, at least 40,000 residents of low-lying areas of Prague -- a city of just over 1 million inhabitants -- were ordered to leave their homes Tuesday, and the 340-room Intercontinental Hotel evacuated its guests.

Emergency workers cleared bridges of hundreds of spectators who had gathered to watch the rising waters, but many tourists ignored the call to evacuate.

"This is a quite different experience than I thought I would get," said Mike McCloskey, 20, a vacationing student from Philadelphia, who took photographs of volunteers building a barrier along the road that leads to the river.

Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla declared a state of emergency and deployed 4,000 soldiers throughout the country, and President Vaclav Havel cut short a vacation in Portugal because of the floods, which destroyed or rendered impassable more than a dozen bridges.

Officials called it Prague's worst flooding since 1890. Water engulfed Prague's historic Kampa island, flooding palaces and villas dating to the Hapsburg Empire. Volunteers scrambled to fill husandbags in a desperate bid to save the city's treasures from the rising waters.

As the day wore on, the waters rose 6 meters above normal levels, threatening to spill over into the Old Town itself. By midafternoon, four districts near the city's historical center reported flooding.

"I've been here all day," said Denis Kasicin, a law student from Moscow helping to pile bags. "I came because the water won't choose who it will affect -- a Czech, a Slovak, a Russian ... that's why I have to work here."

Authorities were keeping close watch over what was considered the weakest point on the river -- a low embankment near the Four Season's Hotel.

Interior Ministry officials said the Vltava had not yet crested, and they were unable to predict when that might occur. Petr Hudler, director-general of the Vltava River Authority, said he expected the waters to peak sometime between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Stores and offices lost power by mid-afternoon, and many shut down, along with the Prague Stock Exchange, which suspended trading.

At the Zoological Garden on the outskirts of Prague, about 400 animals were moved to higher ground. They included two rhinos who had to be moved with a crane, and four gorillas who were sedated. A fifth gorilla was missing but presumed to be hiding within the zoo. A 35-year-old Indian elephant called Kadir, meanwhile, was in a flooded part of the zoo and was in danger of drowning unless the waters receded.

"He's in the water up to his ears, but he seems to be happy," said zoo spokesman Vit Kale.