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Prague Dries Off

Vsehrdova Street, on Prague's Kampa Island, is a jumble of 17th-century architecture, low-rise buildings whose Baroque façades lean precariously over the cobblestoned street. But the faint brownish-green line that runs at shoulder height along the walls belongs to a more recent era: it's the high-water mark left by last August's floods, which submerged parts of Prague's historic center as well as dozens of landmark towns along the Vltava and Elbe rivers.

Some building owners on Kampa are leaving the sodden façades in place, letting the damp winter air slowly dry the centuries-old layers of paint and plaster and the two-foot-thick masonry walls beneath. Less patient landlords have chipped away at the exteriors to help the masonry dry. A few have slapped on a new coat of plaster, or even concrete—to the horror of preservationists.

The water and muck may be gone from Prague's medieval streets, and nearly all of the city's cultural attractions may have reopened, but some of the damage is just now emerging. "A lot of people are destroying original façades that survived four or five floods over the centuries," says Richard Biegel, a young architectural historian who runs the Club for Old Prague. He worries that a growing taste for concrete stucco and shiny, low-maintenance acrylic paints is threatening the authenticity of Kampa's old buildings. Long before the disaster, his group of architects and preservationists frequently battled city hall to stop insensitive reconstructions and renovations in Prague's historic core. Now, it seems, the conflict between developers and preservationists is even more intense. As Czechs continue to mop up, many are wondering how their cultural heritage will survive both the floods and the rush to rebuild.

Prague should have been better prepared when the swollen waters of the Vltava reached the city, on August 12: the damage upstream had been in the news for days. But disagreements between the river's keepers and the hapless mayor had stalled work on flood barriers, and the western suburbs, farther up the river from the city center, were inundated. A wall of interlocking aluminum panels was quickly erected along the low-lying embankment in the heart of the Old Town. That kept the waters from the Jewish Quarter and the Old Town Square, whose Astronomical Clock has ticked almost ceaselessly for nearly 600 years.

But the cash-strapped city government never appropriated the money for a similar barrier to protect the Baroque Mala Strana district across the river, which includes Kampa Island. There, small houses and grand palaces alike were slowly flooded: first basements, then ground floors. Finally, as sirens urged residents to evacuate even the upper stories, a racing tide of brown water rushed into the city center, filling Kampa and reaching almost to the top of the steel arches and stone vaults of the Vltava's six major bridges. Mala Strana was also invaded by water leaking from rain-choked Petrin Hill to the west. The river reached its highest level since the 16th century, causing several billion dollars in damage across the region.

Six months later, most hotels and restaurants in Prague are open again, with the notable exception of the new Four Seasons Hotel, closed at least until June for structural repairs. Visitors are returning to the Old Jewish Cemetery, Charles Bridge, the galleries and museums. Relief funds are flowing in from donors such as the VIA Foundation, a Czech charity, and the New York-based Foundation for a Civil Society (to contribute, visit www.floods.cz). But much remains to be done. The 13th-century Old-New Synagogue sank slightly and requires extensive stabilization. The Kampa Museum of 20th-century Czech art won't reopen until later this year. A museum honoring Bedrich Smetana, the great Czech composer, was all but washed away by the Vltava, the river he famously celebrated in song. The Karlin Musical Theater, Prague's main venue for musical comedies, may collapse due to damaged foundations.


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