Articles

Budapest Flood

Walking in the streets of Budapest you easily can come across with strange looking signs like this:

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This one is on the side fence of National Museum but you can find dozens of similar signs scattered around the city. They show the water level on March 15 1838. That was one of the worst days in Budapest history when the icy river flooded the city, ruined most of its buildings and killed 153 citizens.

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It all begun on March 13 when melting ice jammed on the banks of the shallow river and formed a natural dam. Water level started to rise and soon the protecting levee north of the town collapsed, giving way to the flood. The next day the southern levee failed so the water approached the city from two directions. The worst came on the 15th when the raging flood reached 3 meters in some areas. Here's a map with water levels marked (it's from a 1938 book so some street names have changed since):

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The house I live in was originally built in the 1760s (later rebuilt in the 1860s) and it stood in 2 meters of cold water. Only a small island remained dry, in today's Erzsébet Square and Deák Square. Decades later, when church principals planned to build the Basilica they choosed the plot it stands on now because that area was covered only with relatively shallow water so it was safe from floods.

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Rescue works started on the 14th with people trying to help on boats and take those in danger to higher places or safer building. Churches were crowded with asylum seekers, and in Ludovica, then a newly built Military Academy, today the Museum of Natural History, housed ten thousand people. The most famous of the rescuers was Wesselényi Miklós, a baron, representative in the upper house of the Parliament, member of the Board of the Academy of Sciences, the "Flood Boatman" as he is commonly known today. With his boat he rowed the city tirelessly day and night, picked up those in danger and took them to safety. In return, he was tried and found guilty of publishing some Parliament diaries without the censor's admission, and also of criticizing the government, and he was sentenced to three years in jail... He was and is of course highly praised as a hero, his deeds recorded in countless paintings, articles, books and memorials, like the one on the side of the Franciscan Church:

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Contemporary records show that some 2281 buildings were destroyed and 827 seriously damaged on the Pest side, while on Buda – being mostly on hills – casulties were lower with 204 buildings lost and 262 badly damaged. In Pest only 1146 houses remained largely intact. 153 people dead (151 in Pest), 50-60 thousand lost their homes and some 22 thousand lost everything they had.

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Rebuilding the city begun with making new laws and regulations: city council prescribed the thickness of the walls, height of the buildings, depth of the foundations, building materials and methods, and ordered to officially supervise and approve all plans before starting building works. Also, ground level in the lowest laying areas were topped up – you can see the signs of it where a building has its entrance under today's ground level. Protecting levees were soon restored but regulating the river was delayed until the 1870s.

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So when you walk in the city and find a sign that shows the 1838 flood water level (often in German language, showing "Wasserhöhe") stop for a moment and think about those cold and wet days and the heroes who tried to do everything they could and beyond to save the lives of their fellow citizens.

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