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Poland's Katrina? Massive floods repeat

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

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.