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.
Donald Tusk, the prime minister, has been crisscrossing the country, with his sleeves literally rolled up, to assure Poles that the maximum is being done to keep them safe. A similar message is being sent by Bronislaw Komorowski, the acting president and the presidential nominee of Tusk’s Civic Platform party.
“This is a terrible flood,” said Tusk, standing on a dam across the Vistula north of Warsaw.
The government’s political foes are already pressing their attack. In his maiden campaign speech on Saturday, Jaroslaw Kaczynski — who became the nominee of the right-wing opposition Law and Justice party after his twin brother Lech, Poland’s president, was killed in an April 10 air disaster — devoted his entire speech to the floods.
“Politics and the state are not toys — we have to draw the appropriate conclusions,” he told a cheering crowd, while also pledging to support the government in battling the floods. His allies have been even more direct, accusing the government of abandoning a previous plan to build better anti-flood defenses in order to save money, something the government denies.
“Civic Platform has allowed Poland to be flooded,” announced the conservative Nasz Dziennik daily newspaper.
The upcoming elections are casting a shadow over the government’s efforts to deal with the flood. Under the Polish constitution, if the government declares a state of emergency, any elections have to be delayed by at least three months. Such a scenario would force the cancellation of the June 20 vote, which could leave the government open to charges of using the state of emergency for political ends.
However, some local governments are calling for a state of emergency to be declared to allow them to more easily evacuate people.
“We will not hesitate for even a minute” to call a state of emergency, if rescue authorities ask for one, Tusk said.
Floods have had political consequences in the past. Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, the prime minister in 1997, when much of western Poland was flooded, said at the time that it was people’s own fault if they hadn’t thought to buy insurance before the disaster stuck. The unpopular statement helped lead to the defeat of his left-wing party in parliamentary elections later that year.