Flood misery as surging Elbe breaches defenses in Germany

Story highlights

NEW: The crest on the River Elbe is moving northwest through Germany, now near Wittenberg

Soldiers drop huge sandbags from helicopters after two dikes are breached

Flood preparations are made in Serbia as the Danube River rises

Flooding has affected swaths of central Europe in the past 10 days

CNN  — 

Soldiers dropped huge sandbags from army helicopters Tuesday as part of efforts to stem devastating flooding in northern Germany after the swollen Elbe River breached flood defenses.

A sea of muddy brown water has flowed through two broken dikes in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes.

The situation is stabilizing in the flooded village of Fischbeck, near the town of Stendal, which was left largely submerged after a dike there broke Sunday, officials said.

The flow of water pouring through a gaping breach nearly 50 meters (160 feet) across is now slowing, and water levels have dropped slightly across the state, Saxony-Anhalt Interior Minister Holger Stahlknecht said Tuesday.

An electricity substation was threatened in nearby Sandau, but the situation has now been stabilized, the flood crisis team at the Interior Ministry in Saxony-Anhalt said.

A dike on the Elbe at Schoenebeck, south of Magdeburg, is secure, but a protective evacuation of homes has been carried out, it said.

The water level around Stendal has dropped about half a meter (20 inches) since its peak Monday morning, said CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller, and should drop another 20 inches in the next 24 to 48 hours. The peak surpassed 8.2 meters (26.9 feet), breaking the 2002 record of 7.68 meters (25.2 feet).

Police shut down the center of Wittenberg on Tuesday, a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited to meet volunteers and see flood prevention efforts for herself.

The crest is occurring around Wittenberg and the water should continue to rise farther to the west around Boizenburg and Hamburg in the coming days, Miller said.

About 4,000 German soldiers have been deployed in Saxony-Anhalt, with some dispatched to drop the huge bags of sand from the air.

Three people died in the state last week in connection with the flooding. Another five deaths have been reported across the country.

Volunteer patrols

Dikes are holding so far in Lower Saxony, northwest of Saxony-Anhalt, as the water level on the Elbe reaches 8 meters (26 feet,) state Interior Ministry spokesman Philipp Wedelich said.

About 8,000 volunteers are patrolling the dikes and aiding flood prevention efforts, he said. The critical areas are Lueneburg and Luechow-Dannenberg, he said.

No deaths have been reported in Lower Saxony.

The surging Elbe River, which last week brought flooding to the state of Saxony, to the south, is making its way northwest toward the North Sea.

The town of Lauenburg, in Schleswig-Holstein, has been evacuated as a precaution as the river is expected to peak there by Thursday as it nears the sea, the European Commission’s emergency response center said.

In Saxony, the water levels are falling but 12,000 people are still unable to return to their homes, the state’s Interior Ministry said.

Work is still being done to strengthen dikes because they could weaken if the waters recede slowly, it said.

The mighty Danube

Over the past 10 days, floods on the Elbe and other rivers including the Danube have also affected southern Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

They are the worst since flooding in 2002 devastated the region.

The Czech Republic is now focused on draining the flood waters and cleanup efforts, Czech fire service spokeswoman Nicole Zaoralova said.

Eleven people have died nationwide as a result of the floods, she said. Heavy rain Monday complicated the recovery efforts and caused more flash flooding, she added.

In Austria, river levels are dropping, but the mighty Danube, normally an important transit route for freight and passengers, is still closed to river traffic, the European Commission’s emergency response center said.

The crest on the Danube reached a record high in Hungary’s capital, Budapest, late Sunday, but the city’s flood defenses held and levels there are now dropping.

The river is expected to peak Tuesday in Paks in central Hungary, and a day later in Baja in southern Hungary.

Flood precautions are now under way in Serbia as the Danube starts to rise there, with some evacuations already taking place.

The region’s rivers were filled to bursting by torrential rain at the start of the month, after a wet spring left the ground saturated.

Read: Hungary next to fear surging Danube, as Elbe floods eastern Germany

Read: Swollen rivers bring more flooding in central Europe

Read: Floods bring misery to central Europe

CNN’s Rick Noack and Ivana Kottasova contributed to this report.