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In Poland, floods threaten political consequences

With presidential elections set for June, the worst floods Poland has seen in more than a century have sparked debate.

A flooded house is pictured by the Vistula River in Sandomierz, southern Poland, May 22, 2010. (Jaroslaw Kubalski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — Bridges across the Vistula River, which runs through the heart of Warsaw, were packed Saturday with sightseers coming to get a look at the most serious flood in more than a century, part of a widespread natural disaster that has inundated parts of the south of Poland and is now moving north.

“I feel safe up here watching the river, but it does make me worried for the city,” said one student who had bicycled to Warsaw’s Siekierkowski suspension bridge to watch the roiling waters.

The floods, which are a fairly regular occurrence in Poland at this time of year, could have political consequences in presidential elections set for June 20.

The swirling brown Vistula has surged far beyond its normal course, and was within inches of overflowing the tops of water-logged dikes. Firefighters struggled to keep the city’s defenses intact, and city authorities were preparing evacuation plans in case the earthen walls are breached.

That has already happened south of Warsaw and in western Poland, along the Odra river that flows through the city of Wroclaw. Televised images showed water surging through a suburb of Wroclaw. Whole villages are under water, and police helicopters winched stranded residents to safety. Earlier in the week, the Auschwitz death camp even had to move some of its exhibits to higher floors to prevent water damage and was briefly closed to visitors.

One volunteer firefighter told TVN24 television how he had tried to rescue a man trapped by the freezing floodwaters. Despite several hours of effort, the man died of exposure and his body was carried away by the river.

Interior Minister Jerzy Miller said that as many as a dozen people have been killed and thousands have been evacuated following more than a week of very heavy rains that has sent rivers across central Europe surging over their banks.

Miller went on to say that more heavy rains are expected later in the week, which could prove to be too much for already strained river walls across the country.

“No one should believe they are safe,” he warned.