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Fifty years after World War II, something like the blitzkrieg returned to Nijmegen last week. Dutch soldiers swarmed around the city as low-flying helicopters thundered overhead. The scenes reflected the kind of combat the Dutch know best: struggling with the elements as an onslaught of water threatened to submerge vast tracts of the Netherlands’ sub-sea-level terrain.

All across northwestern Europe an epic deluge was sloshing over the banks of rivers such as the Rhine, the Waal and the Meuse. Torrential rains had combined with prematurely melting Alpine snows to overload major waterways funneling into the Low Countries. The flooding provoked the largest evacuation ever mobilized in the Netherlands: 250,000 people were forced to flee their homes in Limburg and Gelderland, two placid southern provinces of willows and windmills, where dikes were threatening to burst at critically weak points. Almost all the embankments were holding as last week ended, but a red alert persisted.

Upriver in Germany, the Rhine rose to 35 feet at Cologne, equaling the century’s record height set in 1926. Altogether, six German states along the Rhine, Main, Mosel and Nahe were engulfed by the rampaging rivers. The most extensive overflows hit France, where floods covered almost all of the country’s northern half.

Everywhere, critics blamed human error. Builders have transformed large tracts of France’s countryside into shopping malls, parking lots and highways, which has doubled or even tripled the volume of unabsorbed water. Farmers eager to make their work more efficient have ripped out hedgerows, so what used to be patchworks of fields plowed at right angles are now consolidated under parallel plowing that drains in one direction. Straightening the bends of the upper Rhine for shipping ease has shortened the entire course by 50 miles, doubling the speed of Alpine runoffs.

If those culprits were not enough, the Dutch had some of their own. Plans for shoring up the dikes with concrete blocks have languished for years under a policy-review system that requires lengthy consultations. To many evacuees, preserving the beauty of their landscape was less important than preserving terra firma.

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