Prague without the Charles Bridge would be unthinkable. It is far from the only bridge linking the city, but it is, by far, the most famous and the most beautiful.
Unfortunately for all the bridges in Prague, the Vltava River has a nasty tendency to flood – and flood badly. Buildings in the vicinity of the bridge, especially on the Malá Strana side, bear small markers attesting to the height the water reached in 1784, in 1845, in 1890, and in 1940.
The flood of 1890 was devastating to the Charles Bridge. On September 3, 1890, cannons fired from Vysehrad alerted the citizens of Prague that the water was rising quickly. The detritus in the water was responsible for the majority of the damage to the bridge – wooden piers, logs, and private boats. Photos of the bridge show that the flood actually washed away three arches of the bridge. In the areas near the banks of the Vltava, people used canoes to travel through the streets.
The repair of the Charles Bridge after the flood of 1890 took a lot of manpower and a lot of time. Dynamite had to be used, as well as steam-powered machines. It was fourteen years before the bridge was finished and open for business again. (As a side note, two of the famous statues on the bridge also fell victim to the flood. These statues portrayed St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius Loyola.
In 2002, a flood struck Prague – as well as much of Europe – with equally harmful consequences. The Charles Bridge weathered it well, thanks to far more modern flood-protection measures. The rest of Prague suffered some rather extreme damage.
On August 12, 2002, flood warnings went into full effect. Low-lying areas were being evacuated, including Prague’s Karlín and Libeň districts. Workers were busy filling sandbags and placing them in strategic locations. Prague’s metro was closed, but they left it too late – the metro stations also flooded, and in some areas, the floodwaters came up to the level of the street entrances to the stations.
Hospitals had ambulances on standby to transport patients, and the Prague Zoo moved many animals to higher ground. (Two sea lions were swept away by the flood and traveled all the way to Germany before being captured and returned to Prague.)
The Charles Bridge was closed, as were the other bridges. Then-President Václav Havel visited the bridge – only official pedestrian traffic was allowed – to view the rising waters. Malá Strana and Kampa Park were evacuated. Private boats and barges were blown up by the army, to prevent them causing the same type of damage to the bridges that had been caused during the flood of 1890. Workers at archives worked frantically to save precious records and other items from basements and ground floors of buildings. Priceless works of art were taken into upper floors of museums.
Old Town was evacuated on August 13. Each person evacuated was only allowed to bring one suitcase containing his or her most important possessions. The number of people evacuated was 50,000 in Old Town alone, staying with family or friends. If no room was available, they had to live in emergency shelters.
On August 14, the city was a true disaster area. Two train stations (Masarykovo nadraží and Nadraží Holešovice) were flooded. Some buildings had been flooded up to the second floor. Pipes had burst; the city was littered with garbage from the water. It would be a week before some residents were allowed to return to their homes.
It is said that a flood such as this occurs once a century. With luck, by the time the next big flood hits, better protection will be available.