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“The Millennium Flood

Poland, 1997”
History and analysis

by Christopher Adamczyk 10/1/10


Summary

In late June of 1997 a series of rain storms rolled in over the Carpathian and Sudetes mountains
which sit on the border Poland and the Czech Republic. The storms were not unusually strong,
nor did they release more than the anticipated precipitation, but their presence ultimately began
a chain of events that would culminate in the most destructive flood in 200 years of Polish
history. The destruction and historic novelty of the event led people to call it the “Millennium
Flood”.

As the smaller storms left the borderlands, they were replaced by two very powerful storm
fronts that collided over the Czech Republic. The collision of two very different storm
systems led to cessation of movement in local weather patterns. The weather stale mate was
combined with the natural mountainous geography of the region creating a weather phenomena
that released massive amounts of precipitation. With the land already soaked due to the
previous storms, the rain water flowed into the Vistula and the Odra rivers, with a larger
amount ending up in the latter.

Over the next three and half weeks three countries, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland
would experience damn destruction, overrun reservoirs, and flooding on an historic scale. In
Poland alone 330 kilometers of dykes were destroyed (Kindler 1999), over 400 bridges were
wiped out, and over 162,000 people were evacuated (Kindler 1999). The socio-economic
impacts of the floods were underestimated from the beginning and the scares born by the
citizens of Poland are still very visible over a decade later. What is even more amazing is some
of the same failures in flood control identified after the 1997 floods have yet to be addressed.

As with any flood, the question of “Could this have been prevented” will be answered by
examining the conditions present at the time of the event. Many factors led to the inundations
and there is no single identifiable weakness in Polish flood management. Rather, a series of
environmental changes, neglected infrastructure, and a storm of historically significant novelty
led to the floods. The purpose of this report is to detail the technical aspect of the 1997 flood,
identify Polish flood management weaknesses, and address mitigation strategies for the future.

Building on “Insurgents of Greater Poland Square” in Wroclaw, Poland before and during the 1997 flood

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Birth of the “Millennium Flood”
July 3rd, 1997
Czech Republic/ Polish Border

As the sun broke through the light morning clouds along the front of Carpathian mountains,
many of the reservoirs in the region were filled to capacity. The ground was saturated and the
numerous streams and creeks were full of water rushing towards the Odra. The small town of
Lysa Hora in the Czech Republic noted no significant overages in the local reservoirs and no
alarms were raised as this was a common scene played out each summer in the saddle of the
Carpathian and Sudetes mountains.

The water associated with mid-summer rainfall in this region represented only a small portion
of the overall hydrology that fed the Odra and Vistula. Much of the water from the storms
would remain in the mountains’ reservoirs while only a small amount would ever reach the
major rivers. Poland was accustomed to the summer precipitation totals and the small amount
of water that fed into the Odra. Hydrologists termed mid to late summer in Poland as “low
flow” periods of the Odra. In response to the low flow, over many years smaller creeks and
rivers that stemmed from the Odra were blocked or damned to allow for marine navigation. By
choking off escape routes, the river remained full enough in the low flow periods. There had
never been a reason to expect a significant increase in water during the low flow periods,
therefore no allowances were made for such a possibility.

During the afternoon of July 3rd, 1997 a powerful summer weather system moved into the
region from the east. The system contained the typical warm temperatures and moisture rich
clouds seen in the region. As the system moved into the area above Lysa Hora it met head on
with another weather system. The second system moved in from the north and west and
contained cooler, humid, polar air from the Baltic regions. This second system was already
responsible for dumping considerable rainfall along the German Polish border, however the
rainfall was well within the seasonal norms.

The convergence of these two system produced three phases of intense rainfall in the
catchments of the upper Odra. The first phase
began on July 3rd and was primarily felt in Lysa
Hora in the Czech Republic, and the towns of
Kamienica and Miedzygorze on the Polish side.
The heaviest rain occurred in this area between
July 4th and 7th with recorded rainfall totals
between 17 and 23 inches (Kundewicz 1998).

Because the ground was already saturated, and


the reservoirs full, the rainwater began rushing
down river, towards unsuspecting villages and
towns.

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The Onset of the Flood
July 5th, 1997
Poland

The surge of water in the Odra during this first phase was
defined by its speed and destructive power. In 12 hours the
water level in the upper Odra increased approximately 13 feet.
(Kundewicz 1998). By July 5th a valley near the town of
Chalupki flooded when the embankments along the river were
overrun by just under 12 inches of water. The fact that the
valley became a de facto reservoir saved Chalupki from
complete inundation. The city of Raciborz, population 61,000, Graphic Showing Areas
was far less fortunate. The flood control measures there were Threatened by 1997 Floods
overrun by 6 1/2 feet (Kindler 1997) resulting in the smaller
villages outside of the main town being completely flooded by July 7th. The next day most of
the streets in Raciborz were underwater, and by 1400 hours on July 8th, Raciborz was
completely inundated (2005). The alarm systems in place for flood management in this area
recorded water flow of approximately 3,260 m3/s. Before that time the highest flow ever
recorded was 1,630 m3/s. The alarm systems near Raciborz were destroyed just after taking the
measurements. This was not a unique problem in that during the recovery phase of the floods
many of the water gauges along the Odra were found to have been destroyed by the water
(Kindler 1997).

Highland tributaries, like the Nysy Klodzka and Otmuchow, which eventually feed into the
Odra, rose even faster than the river. The water swell descending from the Sudetes was
enormous and by the 7th of July the reservoirs of Nysy Klodzka and Otmuchow were overrun
and flooded the nearby town of Klodzko. The flood destroyed the entire town of 31,000 people
and permanently displaced 500 families (Kundewicz 1998). The reservoirs did decrease the
flow of water into the town for a short time, which may have saved many lives. In the end, the
water flow was too much for the dykes and the wave of water continued down river towards the
Odra.

The second phase of intense rainfall began on July 10th. By this time the wettest portion of the
storm system had dislodged from the saddle of the Carpathian and Sudetes mountains, and was
slowly making it’s way north and west. The storm never let up in intensity and seemed to
follow the wave of water created in the first phase. The Odra had now swelled to 50% over it’s
capacity, and the rain was still falling. The towns of Opole, Krapkowice, and Dobrze Wielki
were all flooded on the 10th and the wave of destruction plowed through dozens of small
villages and townships. The wave was so immense by this time that none of these smaller
towns had a chance to mitigate the destruction (Kundewicz 1998). Most of the residents were
able to flee prior to the wall of water rushing in, but homes and other structures were lost to the
wave.

The flood was increasing in strength with the new rain fall, and was now directly aimed at the
city of Wroclaw.

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The Hardest Hit
July 11, 1997
Lower Silesian County, Poland

Between the town of Opole and the city of Wroclaw lies Siechnice, population 3,100. Siechnice
is situated close to the convergence of the Nysy Klodzka and Odra rivers. On July 11, 1997 two
waves of water rushed towards Siechnica; one in the Nysy Klodzka, and the other in the Odra.
The two waves collided forming one massive swell, flooding Siechnice and nearby Radwanice.
The wave rolled towards the city of Wroclaw and its population of 650,000 residents at about
1.6 kilometers an hour, or 87 feet per minute (Kundewicz 1998). This was significantly slower
than the flooding seen in the mountainous areas, but ultimately more destructive.

The city’s flood protection system was rated at a max flow of 2,440 m3/s, the wave that
reached Wroclaw on the 12th had a flow of 3,400 m3/s. The result was the inundation of 30%
of city with water levels reaching up to 12 feet in the city and 10 in the subdivisions (Smigalska
2010). The flood shut down the drinking water supply and destroyed the sewage system, adding
raw sewage to the flow. The electricity was cut off as 500 transformer station were flooded and
telephone communication was out for 360,000 residents (Lukasz 1997). Over 150,000 residents
were directly impacted by flood waters. Those who could leave their homes engaged in a street
by street fight against the water using thousands of sandbags. The citizens rallied around
“Cathedral Island” and their combined efforts saved historical markers and buildings. The flood
levels remained at “alarm” stages for 17 days in this area as the flow slowed and eventually
stopped.

As the rain pulled out of Wroclaw and continued deeper into Poland in what is considered
“phase 3”, it left behind the lion’s share of destruction. The original storm system had now
split, with one portion heading north towards the Baltic, and the other east towards Warsaw.
The rainfall remained high but the flood swell was reduced due to the downstream inundations.
This combined with the knowledge of the possible floods resulted in downstream cities taking
precautions to mitigate any possible flood damage. There was some flooding in Germany,
however is was nowhere near the amount found in Poland.

Left: Illustration of flood waters in


Wroclaw
Below: Flooded Residential Area in
Wroclaw

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Aftermath, Response, and Recovery

In a report by the Human Development Index (IDH) completed on August 6th, 1997 the
estimated surface area that was flooded in southwestern Poland was 2,277 square miles
(1997a). This sounds small for a country that is close to 118,000 square miles total. However,
when one considers the impact on the lives of the residents in the affected areas, the tragedy
really begins to emerge.

A total of 2592 villages and towns were flooded, with 1362 of them completely inundated
(Kundewicz 1998). In some cases the water never receded and pumping was not possible,
leaving 46,000 residents without a place to live (Lukasz 1997) . For these people relocation was
the only option. In many cases several buildings were found to be structurally unsound after the
flood and were demolished. Some of them were replaced by newer buildings with total
disregard for fact they existed in a known flood plain. The newer buildings were also of little
comfort to displaced families because they were higher priced residences than the ones they
lost.

The number of known deaths associated with the floods were 54. This is remarkably low
considering 162,000 people were evacuated from residences, some of them by helicopter due to
the raging flood waters. Structural consequences included 110 medical facilities damaged or
destroyed, 480 bridges, and 87 railway stations destroyed. Intercity travel in the Lower Silesia
region was so severely disrupted many train routes were re-routed leading to longer than usual
travel times, or there was complete shut down of certain lines.

Agriculture in the region sustained a near “death blow” from the floods. Over 988,000 acres of
farmland were destroyed during the floods, some of it so damaged it would be unusable for
several years. Livestock losses were staggering; 1900 cattle, 5900 pigs, 360 sheep and over one
million heads of poultry all killed in the floods. Non-agricultural businesses suffered monetary
losses in the range of 2.3 billion US dollars (7.5 billion Zloty). This represented about 1.2% of
the country’s GDP and caused a drop in overall GDP of 0.6% from the previous year (Lukasz
1997).

Billions of dollars poured into Poland from countries all over the world. Within Poland
concerts and telethons were held to raise money for the victims of the flood. A popular musical
groups called “Hey” dedicated one of the songs to the victims of the flood. The song “Our
Hope” (Moja I Twoja Nadzieja) was played on every radio station and on music video channels
several times a day. The song became the unofficial anthem of the recovery from the 1997
“Millennium Flood.”

The recovery began during the response while the rain was still falling. The amount of people
involved in the response and recovery was the largest mobilization of persons in Poland since
WWII. In all 100,000 civilians, 45000 soldiers, 25000 firemen, and 10000 policemen helped
the country pull out of the flood (Kundewicz 1998). When the water began to recede the
recovery went on, and considerations for mitigation began at high levels of the Polish
government. This was simultaneously the time blame began to be placed at all levels.

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Analysis and Causes

The sheer volume of water released by the convergence of two intense storm systems played an
undeniably critical role in the 1997 floods. Many have argued that no amount of mitigation or
pre-planning could have stopped the deluge, while other politicians simply blamed wildlife,
like beavers, for the catastrophic flooding. The actual causes of the 1997 flood are as complex
as the weather systems that produced it.

Water dispersion and storage in the highland regions are the first two obvious causes of the
floods. The town ins the upper Sudetes and Carpathian mountains are not sprawling
metropolises rather villages of 2,000 to 5,000 people. Flood management monies were rarely
dispersed to such locations because the main concern was always larger cities like Wroclaw
with a population of over half a million. Still, there were engineering plans for building a
massive reservoir near the town of Raciborz, but the plans never came to fruition. Another
reservoir was planned near the Nysy Klodzka, however it too was never realized. Had the
reservoirs been built as planned, they would have dramatically changed the down stream
consequences of the 1997 floods, not to mention the hydrological and navigation benefits
projected. Decades of debates over the reservoirs kept them from being built and their benefits
were never realized.

An analysis conducted by Zbigniew Kundewicz who is cited many times in this report,
Krzysztof Szmalek, and Piotr Kowalczak found fierce opposition to the ideas of reservoirs prior
to the 1997 floods. The central administration in Warsaw for example saw no financial gain in
building large reservoirs especially considering that since 1989, when democracy was born into
the Republic, several social welfare programs were in need of large amounts of money. They
also felt the public scrutiny from constituents who lived in the proposed affected areas and who
feared relocation due to the reservoir construction. Environmentalist groups also protested
reservoir building citing the potential damage to the flora. Prior to the 1997 floods reservoirs
were typically met with “violent and long-lasting nationwide dispute” (Kundewicz 1998).

It was the environmentalists who actually articulated another major cause of the 1997 floods;
river manipulation. The various environmental groups began pointing to “over regulation” of
the Odra, years before the 1997 floods. An examination of the claim revealed several factors
that contributed to the floods. As mentioned earlier in this report, several of the “out flow”
streams and rivers stemming from the Odra, were filled-in to increase the volume of the river.
This was done to ensure navigation remained possible at all times of the year especially during
the “low flow” period of late summer. During the 19th century the Odra was actually decreased
in length by 26.4% due to channeling and
diversion (Kundewicz 1998).

Bridge along the Nysy Klodzka


1997

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Causes and Long Term Response

Another river manipulation that led to the 1997 floods is called “river straightening.” This is the
process whereby rivers are re-directed by plowing away the naturally formed curves. The rivers
are then dredged in the areas around the straightened portion, removing the underwater terrain.
The result is increased water flow which helps generate power in hydroelectric plants as well as
river navigation. One estimate offered by the “Association of the Earth-Oswiecim Group”
indicated a 20% straightening increases flow by 50%. The Nysy Klodzka has been straightened
by 14% in some areas, and 24% in others (1997b).

The next leading cause of flood damage during the 1997 floods was the outdated flood
management plans of the Lower Silesia region. Many of the flood plans were created prior to
World War II and because there had not been a major flood in Poland since 1903, none of them
were updated. City expansion, building on flood planes, and river manipulation all had effects
on the hydrology of the Odra, however no changes were made in flood management. As
mentioned previously, building new reservoirs was a potentially toxic topic in politics, but so
was allocating money for the upkeep of weirs, 19 of which were built prior to WWII.
Everything from physical flood mitigation measures, to flood management plans were outdated
and useless in the 1997 floods.

Long Term Response

The identification and elimination of weaknesses in the Polish flood management plans began
days after the peak of the 1997 floods but quickly faded. In January of 1999 the central Polish
government decentralized flood management to the heads of each of the counties in the
country. The thought behind the dispersal of responsibilities was attributed to the concept that
local leaders knew more about their regions than members of the central administration. County
leaders were given the authority to prepare their counties in whatever ways they saw best. In
some counties this worked well because the authority came with some funding. Smaller
counties however still had to compete for money for flood control. Politicians still had an
aversion to allocating major funds for flood preparation and mitigation, so the competition was
fierce and typically favored the larger counties.

Building in flood planes has not decreased in Poland since the 1997 floods. From a social point
of view many citizens feel the flood was literally an event that could only happen once every
thousand years. For this reason building and living in flood planes is not considered an issue.
Many of the flood management plans were not updated and remain substandard, leaving the
impression that many cities and towns are doomed to repeat the process in the event of another
major flood.

Where some may find despair in the lack of foresight by Polish politicians, others are seeing
glimmers of hope. A new generation of knowledgeable and tech savvy professionals are joining
the workforce. With them come innovative flood management ideas including the use of
Geospatial Imaging to create models for future disaster planning, and reliable risk assessments
on current flood control measures.

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Conclusion

The 1997 Millennium Flood was a natural disaster of historic significance. Those who lived
through it, like the author, will never forget the sights and sounds associated with three weeks
of endless rain and flooding on an unprecedented scale. The city of Wroclaw has forever been
changed by the flood with some sections not expected to recover for many years, while the
emotional scars of the citizenry may never heal. The later realization that the floods could have
been mitigated, or possibly prevented in some areas, brings to the forefront the absolute sadness
of the ordeal. The fact that many of the identified lapses in the flood management remain over a
decade later is un-excusable and disheartening. The only hope of mitigating future floods in
Poland lies in the new generation of hydrologists, city planners, and environmentalists. By
employing a dynamic strategy that takes into account the lessons of the past combined with the
technology of tomorrow, these future leaders can work to mitigate and possibly prevent another
“Millennium Flood.”

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Bibliography

Photographs-

Title Page, “Pomink Powodzianka”- Woman in the Flood statue in Wroclaw Poland, Photo
courtesy of www.pl.wikipedia.org.
http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pow%C3%B3d%C5%BA_tysi%C4%85clecia
Page 2, “ Wroclaw Flood 7/7/97” Photographs of Wroclaw before and during flood, Taken by
“Ewaczu” featured on www.my.opera.com.
http://my.opera.com/ewaczu/albums/showpic.dml?album=897792&picture=12286235
Page 3, “Map of Poland” Image taken from www.cia.gov. Graphics added by the author
Page 4, “Poland Under water” Image taken from www.se.pl,
http://www.se.pl/wydarzenia/kraj/polska-pod-woda_139674.html
Page 5, “Map of Wroclaw showing Inundation”, Image taken from
www.wroclawwzwyboru.blox.pl.
http://wroclawzwyboru.blox.pl/2007/07/Powodz-we-Wroclawiu.html
“Arial Photo of flooded housing” Image taken from www.ziemianarozdzozu.pl
http://ziemianarozdrozu.pl/artykul/553/burze-i-wichury-w-polsce-a-zmiany-klimatu
Page 7, “Nysy Klodzka” Image taken from www.mojeopinie.pl
Page 9, “Sandbag Photo” Image taken from www.celebrifi.com, other 2 are file sharing photos

Citations-
-(Kindler 1999) “1997 Flood Emergency In Poland: A Lesson for Education and Training Pro-
grames” by Janusz Kindler Warsaw University of Technology, Warsaw, Poland
-(Kundewicz 1998) “The Great Flood of 1997 in Poland” by Zbigniew Kundewicz, Krzysztof
Szmalek, & Piotr Kowalczak
-(2005), “Flood in July 1997” On-line, www.nowiny.pl,
http://www.nowiny.pl/artykul.php?idr=71&id=96&a=show_art&ida=2986&idn=1322
-(Lukasz 1997) “The Flood of the Millennium in Wroclaw, July 1997” By Lukasz
www.republika.pl, http://mcebrat.republika.pl/flood.htm
-(Smigalska 2010) In-person interview with Sabina Smigalska (Adamczyk) flood survivor
-(1997a) “Geneva Situation Report #7, Poland-Floods” Human Development Index
-(1997b) “Flood in Poland” by The Association for the Earth-Green Federation Oswiemcim
Group” On-Line, www.zb.eco.pl, http://zb.eco.pl/gb/24/flood.htm

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