Wroclaw

Wrocław Underwater | The 1997 flood that inspired 'High Water'

14 Oct 2022
Nature’s blind indifference to civilization was amply demonstrated in 1997 when Wrocław was hit by the biggest flood in its history. Starting on July 3, 1997 six days of torrential rain battered Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic. By July 6 the first towns and villages were under water, though worse was to come on July 11 when the Odra and Oława rivers burst their banks by the town of Siechnice. The torrent that was unleashed rushed in the direction of Wrocław, hitting the city the following evening on July 12, 1997. By morning much of the city resembled a lake, with some parts of Wrocław submerged in up to three metres of water. Electricity was cut, transport paralysed and telephone lines destroyed. The two water plants had also been hit, leaving over 650,000 habitants without water for the following three weeks. As affected sewage plants were overwhelmed the threat of an epidemic loomed. With 40% of the city covered by water, Wrocław presented an apocalyptic nightmare.
The wave hit Wrocław on July 12, paralysing the city and causing mass devastation. Photo (c)Leszek Wróblewski/PAP.

The response of the citizens and emergency services was emphatic, however. Over 50 kilometres of sandbag barriers had been hastily erected, thereby saving numerous historical buildings and treasures; among them the Cathedral Island (Ostrów Tumski). A massive evacuation project was also launched with thousands of children spirited away from the disaster zone. Over 162,000 people were evacuated, but the extremely high waters still claimed the lives of at least fifty-six people. 1,358 towns and villages were hit over an affected area that spanned 400,000 hectares. In the days that followed huge swathes of Wrocław were only accessible by pontoon or helicopter. In material terms the damage caused in Wrocław alone topped 5.5 billion złoty (12 billion nationwide), as well as destroying 100,000 cars, 87 railways stations and 56 sewage plants.

Today, thankfully, not much evidence remains of the devastation or emotional difficulty of those times. A monument to victims and heroes of the 1997 flood stands midway across the University Bridge (Most Uniwersytecki), however. Designed by Stanisław Wysocki and erected in 1998, the three-metre sculpture depicts a nameless woman wading through water carrying books - a tribute to the students who joined efforts to save the priceless collection of the University Library.
 
Still frame from 'High Water,' the new television series about the 1997 flood in Wrocław.
 

High Water | Wielka Woda (Netflix, 2022)

In October 2022, twenty-five years after the events of 1997, a six-episode TV series about the tragic flood and its aftermath was released on Netflix, climbing to the top of the streaming platform’s most-watched list. Titled ‘Wielka Woda’ (High Water), the Polish series directed by Jan Holoubek and Bartłomiej Ignaciuk has earned acclaim for its realism, drama and authenticity in showing Wrocław - where the show was largely filmed - and Poland as it actually looked in the late ‘90s. The show even deftly incorporates original television footage into scenes of the city underwater. It should be noted that the hit show is not a documentary, however, and while following the heroism of its main protagonists, also isn’t shy about suggesting how the disaster could have been avoided by authorities. Check out the English-language trailer below.
 

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