Poland's Katrina? Massive floods repeat

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.

Despite pleas from environmental groups, most of Poland’s flood prevention is concentrated on building barriers along rivers, while the accepted method in much of the United States and western Europe is to leave some rural areas unbuilt to allow rising waters to flood there, reducing the pressure farther upriver.

Jerzy Miller, the interior minister, put the blame for dangerously overstressed dikes on beavers he said had damaged the earthen structures, but specialists say the fault largely lies in wrongheaded flood policies.

“Three-quarters of the floodplains of the Odra and Vistula rivers in Poland have been confined inside flood embankments and opened for development, even though it is common knowledge that the flood embankments do not guarantee 100 percent safety to these areas,” said Piotr Nieznanski, head of conservation for WWF-Poland, the environmental group.

The shortcomings are part of a broader Polish problem. Poland reacts well to crisis — thousands turned out to help stack sandbags, and charity events are being held around the country to aid those left homeless by the flood — but it is much worse at long-term planning and execution, as the decades of delays in building a modern transport infrastructure attest.

So far the political fallout from the floods has been minimal. One reason is that the blame for the mess is shared by all political parties, not just by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has been in office only two years.

Another reason for the lack of consequences is that politicians are afraid of telling harsh truths during floods; when Tusk travels the country with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, he does not criticize voters, only calling on his aides to “remember who screwed up” in local government.

Finally, Tusk is throwing money at the problem, promising at least 2 billion zlotys for flood victims, while the opposition Law and Justice party wants to more than double that.

The end result is likely to be the same as always — people will take the government money and rebuild their homes, while most will not bother to get insurance. Poland’s inept bureaucracy will not improve, and the next time a low pressure system is trapped over central Europe, large areas of Poland will be under water again.