Waters rise

thousands flee Dresden

Art masterpieces rescued as Elbe River reaches record level in Germany

August 17, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DRESDEN, Germany - Thousands of people were evacuated from Dresden yesterday as the Elbe River rose to record heights and was expected to rise even more.

The river, fed by floodwaters that earlier raced through Prague, rose to more than 29 feet early yesterday, topping its 1845 high of 28.75 feet. It is about five times its normal depth.

Officials began the evacuation of up to 33,000 residents from their homes yesterday, starting about two miles downstream from the city center. About 5,000 people had already been forced to leave their homes in the city in recent days, but there are no plans as yet to move people from the city center, a Saxony official spokesman said.

Yesterday, waters swamped a square in front of the 19th-century Semper Opera and the Zwinger Palace art museum. The basement of the Semper Opera filled with eight feet of water, but the orchestra pit and the concert hall itself were described as safe.

Below the paintings by Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt and other old masters that crowd the walls of the palace, hundreds of other works by Renaissance and Baroque artists are now lined up on the floor, survivors of what might have been a cultural tragedy when the palace's underground storage rooms flooded Tuesday.

Working by the light of candles and torches, 200 museum workers, police officers and soldiers carried about 4,000 paintings to the upper floors of the palace as the Elbe rose by the hour. Six paintings too large to move were attached by ropes to pipes in the ceiling in the hope that the floodwater would not reach them.

"It was like a horror movie," said Martin Roth, director of the State Art Collections of Dresden. "But ... we were lucky. We found the right people to help, and no one panicked."

Masterpieces such as Raphael's Sistine Madonna, Giorgione's Sleeping Venus, Titian's Tribute Money and Correggio's Holy Night are permanently displayed on the building's second floor and were never threatened.

But the museum's collection is so large that there were many works by old masters that could not find room in the gallery. Now they lean against the wall, five deep - safe for the moment.

Elsewhere in Saxony, the Elbe continued to threaten towns and smaller communities. About 20,000 people have been evacuated from the low-lying region around Magdeburg. Nine people in the state have reportedly died so far this week.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has promised help, $100 million of it in cash for those most immediately in need.

Elsewhere in Dresden, the Albertinum, another Baroque palace that houses museums of antique statuary and 19th- and 20th-century paintings, was also forced to empty its basement Tuesday.

With the help of many of the same people who had saved the Zwinger Palace artworks hours earlier, about 650 paintings and 11,000 statues or antiquities were carried up a narrow staircase to safety.

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