Agonising wait for German elderly flood evacuees

A group of elderly Germans resting in a school sports hall turned disaster evacuation centre are trying to kill time and wait out the worst flood to ever hit their city.

"The hardest thing is not knowing what to do," said Brigitte Ilsmann, 88, who has spent her life here on the banks of the Elbe river. "You sit on a bench, talking with strangers and trying to kill time."

Evacuated from her care home, the old lady who moves with a walker took refuge in the facility where the Red Cross has set up cots with grey blankets and offers thermoses of coffee, baskets full of apples and biscuits.

Sitting on the cot assigned to her on arrival, Gisela Suhau, 77, recalled "being scared" when she saw the muddy flood water gush into her basement and turn the streets outside into rivers.

"We've never seen anything like it," she said -- even in 2002 when "the floods of the century" hit the region in what was formerly communist East Germany.

"They told us to leave, so we took the bare essentials and we came here," she said, adding that staying home was not an option. "We had no electricity, you can't cook," she said.

Up to 150 people can find refuge in the gymnasium, but the need is far greater. Authorities urged 15,000 people to evacuate Sunday in areas east of the Elbe, where the water now reaches the tree tops.

The river banks of the Elbe, the level of which has risen to over three times its usual height, are now lined by piles of sandbags, heaped on by thousands of volunteers and firefighters to try to limit the scale of the disaster.

"Most of the evacuated people are actually staying with family members or friends," said Enrico Schmidt, a local Red Cross official. "People have also offered to host evacuees in their homes or made available holiday apartments."

For single people, mostly elderly, three emergency shelters have been set up in the city of 230,000 inhabitants, 150 kilometres (90 miles) southwest of Berlin.

"They are supported psychologically," said Schmidt. "We have everything we need for them."

However, Ilsmann said "it is difficult to adapt. You don't sleep well on a hard bed when you are 88 years old, and there is a lot of noise."

"We're talking with people, we laugh a little and pass the time," added Suhau, who hoped to go home next weekend at the latest.

In the evening, over a hot potato soup, the elderly people's faces looked tired and resigned to their fate as they ate, the silence interrupted only by emergency sirens and the rotor sounds of helicopters in the distance.