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Poland's Katrina? Massive floods repeat

Infrastructure, bureaucracy and legal hurdles ensure that Polish cities will flood again.

Poland Flood Damage
An amphibious vehicle is driven by a rescue team at the flooded Kozanow district of Wroclaw near the Sleza river on May 22, 2010. (Maciej Swierczynski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — The mud-brown waters that flooded Poland this May — killing 18, leaving thousands homeless and causing almost $3 billion in damage — are finally beginning to recede. But among the wreckage and flotsam left behind is a renewed recognition that there is something deeply wrong with the functioning of the Polish state.

The country experienced a devastating series of floods in 1997, which killed 55 and caused enormous damage, particularly in the western city of Wroclaw, where whole neighborhoods were flooded. Following that disaster, and smaller floods in 2001, the government pledged to spend a fortune to prevent future flooding and to ensure that people be more careful about where to build and that they be properly insured. But little has come of those promises.

One of the main difficulties has been the spending of money allocated for flood defenses. According to a report by the Supreme Chamber of Control, the government’s watchdog agency, of the 10 billion zlotys ($3 billion) pledged after 1997, only 3 billion zlotys have been spent so far, and only a fraction of an additional $2.5 billion from the European Union has been used.

“This is the fault of people who complained about a lack of money, and then were unable to use the funds that were available,” said Jozef Gorny, the Chamber’s deputy president.

Another problem is that Polish officials have proven spectacularly unable to modernize and amend building codes. The vast majority of the country, including most cities, is not covered by zoning plans, and that is a pressing issue on floodplains. It is normally hugely difficult to get a building permit, except in the case where a house is damaged or destroyed by a natural disaster — then almost no paperwork is needed to rebuild.

The upshot is that officials have found it impossible to halt building in areas where floods are a regular occurrence.

A stark sign of that irony were photographs of the Wroclaw suburb of Kozanowa from 1997 showing apartment blocks surrounded by brown water. Photos of the same area taken in the last few days show the same buildings, plus many newly constructed houses, again standing in deep water.