Inside view – when the Danube flooded

Published:  24 July, 2013

By John Maczko PhD, Director of OPS Armadillo Hovercraft Rescue & Response Support Unit, Hungary.

In June 2013, the media would bring news of floods, but not from as far away as the USA, India, or Australia as we are used to hearing about, but rather in our own backyard in Europe. This article deals with the devastating floods as seen by a small SAR unit, which took part as one of several hundred rescue units across Hungary to assist in what would be the largest single emergencies in the country’s history.

The AHRRSU is a division of the Pest State SAR service and Pilis Rescue Unit. With a base in the capital of Budapest, its main goal is to protect and preserve life and property, we provide specialist services including:

  • Water rescue
  • Flood response
  • Specialist missing persons search
  • Specialist security and law enforcement support.

The AHRRSU provides services to Local Authorities, Government Departments, Town Councils and National Authorities, Civilian Search and Rescue – Fire Rescue NGO´s, in their provision of emergency services. Our motto is, "To go where others seek refuge from", and how true this would be in the days of the 2013 Danube floods.

Chronology of events

May 30-June 1, Germany and Austria, in 3 days more then 200mm of rainfall occur (more than 2 months average)

June 2, evacuations of people in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic start (Central Europe is on alert).

June 4, thousands of troops from the military in Germany are sent to deal with the floods

June 5, Dresden (Germany) 600 people are evacuated

June 7-8, Hungary is threatened by flooding, and a full-scale evacuation is put in place in Gyorujfalu (a small town near the border of Austria). Hungary is in a full state of emergency and tens of thousands of people from fire services, police, rescue agencies and the military move in to assist along the river Danube.

June 8-9, water levels on the Danube hit the highest ever recorded level all the way down the river as far as Budapest, where it is feared that parts of the city could be flooded.

In figures

  • 206,000 people were directly affected by the floods, 1,570 persons were evacuated
  • Over 10 million sand bags were used, 8 helicopters, 573 4x4s, 1 hovercraft
  • Over 6,000 people took part in the floods of the area of Szentendre (where the AHRRSU was stationed)

The role of the AHRRSU during the floods

Our team arrived to the town of Szentendre, about 15miles north of Budapest, with the primary goal of providing reconnaissance, search and special response, as well as patrols of areas affected by the flooding (where the use of conventional vehicles and or boats could not be used).

As we were based at a local fire station where accommodation was provided, we soon found ourselves responding to calls on average one per hour. To give the readers an idea of how we were called, the fire services have the usual PA system most stations have, but before the PA address is made, the music of Pirates of the Caribbean is played (probably a motivational thing). By the end of our tour this music was embedded in our ears, and ever since I am waiting for instructions once I hear the tune.

The AHRRSU had a chance to make good use of several types of kit, including the Reach & Rescue system (wadding poles were standard and helped to save lives), Mayday Hansa Board; Safequip products; Aquapac; Gecko helmets; Beal ropes - and not least our hovercraft.

We found that much of our time was put to ensuring the safety of fire and other rescue personnel, including technical divers. In a large-scale operation such as this one, tasks are well defined but can be quite diverse. The entire SAR service (State of Pest Rescue Service, along with our unit) managed to maintain a focus on duties where our knowledge, experience and equipment could be best put to use. Call-outs where regular, but sandbagging and other duties were done mainly by the “civilian volunteers”, whose work was coordinated by professionals. Our unit concentrated on specialist tasks. Down time, when not responding to call outs, was made up by checking and rechecking equipment, maintenance, cleaning, and staying mentally focused.

Challenges in a large-scale flood situation

It is important to differentiate between technical challenges and individual challenges. As mentioned above the mental focus of team on down time is at least as important to its members’ physical endurance. As no two call outs are the same, staying focused and not allowing complacency to kick in on any “mission” is key in the outcome and safety of the members of the unit.

Maintaining a high level of hygiene: in flood situations this cannot be over emphasized. In any flooding contamination will no doubt be present, this can be from sewage as well as industrial waste, pesticides, petroleum products, etc… Large-scale flooding allows for rapid dilution of contamination. We found that developing and following strict protocols can prevent the possible consequences of contamination. One of the most common symptoms that something is wrong is diarrhoea and /or fever. Diarrhoea can also be a result of dehydration, so it is wise to keep this symptom in mind.

Washing hands on a regular basis is key to hygiene, but this should be paired with using an antibacterial solution. We have found that issuing individual kits (spray and gel) that are kept as gear works best. Also because any food or drink may come in contact with contamination, strict rules apply to eating and drinking.

Food and drink: in small scale situations teams will usually attend a call out with ample time to have breaks and be able to reenergise their “batteries” either during - but most of the time after - a mission is completed.

In a large-scale mission, as we saw, food and drink was provided on a regular 3-6 times daily, so we saw no void in being fed and kept well hydrated. The problems that do happen with teams are a lack of knowledge as regards calculating the calories that are required to keep the body running properly. As OPS director this is where I sought professional advice from a physician and dietician. As a typical calorie intake for men would be around 2,000 to 2,600 calories if they are sedentary, 2,200 to 2,800 calories if they’re moderately active and 2,400 to 3,000 calories per day if they are active, we took 3,000 calories as base line (female members of the unit are around 500 calories less per day). By issuing high-calorie food with adequate sugar content providing about half of the daily required calorie intake, when provided with food (which we were), a proper level of nutrition could be maintained.

Hydration: on average (obviously depending a number of factors) hydration should be at least two litres per day. In order to maintain proper hydration each member neads to consume water not only when they are thirsty, but also as matter of rutine, in order that dehydration does not occur.

Logistics: issuing equipment and controlling logistics requires a special talent, and should not be underestimated. Many teams find that very basic needs such as fuel can be difficult to obtain in emergency situations. We were most fortunate that logistics were handled well, and this can be said across the entire operation. Logistics and communication work closely in hand, and there are always questions, when multi agency efforts are required on a single mission, how they will communicate between each other, radio frequencies and equipment (are they compatible). To overcome a number obstacles we managed to use a liaison system, in which a team member was responsible to relay information from other radios.

Everyone who has been in a large-scale flood situation knows that “just because it was there yesterday, doesn’t mean it will be there today”. This applies to terrain, including trees, buildings, road signs and points which one would usually use as indicators. This proved especially true on June 9th, when we responded to a reconnaissance call out with the hovercraft, to a small village call Szigetmonostor which is on an island on the river Danube located north of Budapest. While GPS was used, we found that laminated maps with details and special points marked would assist us a great deal.

Our task was to locate a breach of the dam wall, which endangered both the town as well as holiday homes that form part of a community next to the town. The fear was that as the river Danube was rapidly rising, even without a breach there would be a number of homes that would be flooded. After spending about six hours searching for the breach, we found that the situation could only be contained via Helo air drops of sandbags – which was a decision later made by the operative task force. In the meantime an evacuation of residents needed to be instigated and for this reason several methods including boats and military type amphibious vehicles were used. Assistance was provided by the Hungarian Red Cross (The AHRRSU and Pilis Rescue Service are collaborating joint partners of the Hungarian Red Cross).

Patrols: a number of patrols of flooded areas were carried by our unit, which would serve two purposes.

  • To search flooded homes to ensure that no persons were left in danger, and;
  • To provide a counter measure for crime prevention (done with law enforcement officers).

We also found that while a ban on using any type of boats including canoes kayaks etc… was in place, many people who had homes along the Danube chose not to obey this ban. When later questioned, they stated that they wanted to check on their homes that were flooded.

Challenges in dealing with public at the scene of incidents

Among several challenges that we came across, we found that persons at a scene of a call out could be grouped into the following categories:

-          Genuine home owners concerned with there community

-          Volunteers – who help a great deal but always need to have proper leadership

-          “Catastrophe tourists” – people who came to take photos, to ask questions and who at many times do not have regard to the dangers in the area. Theses are the people who just came for a closer look, and disregard any cordons or areas closed to the public. We found that many a time they were in the way

-          Opportunists – who just happened to reach in the van or walk into a home, because the door was open

-          Criminals – it is a well-known fact that in times of national disasters, it is an invitation for the criminal element to attend. We have found theft of cables and other metals, entering in homes that have been abandoned etc…

It is important for any unit attending to develop a good relationship with law enforcement, and to have a reporting system in place for anything suspicious. We found an excellent presence of law enforcement, and throughout the floods criminal activity was minimal.

To summarise, the 2013 river Danube floods were handled with a great deal of professionalism, and unity was demonstrated by the entire nation. It was fortunate that no lives were lost. We benefited a great deal by the fact that we were able to forecast when the flood would enter the country and this gave us time need to prepare defence strategy.

However, as there had never been a flood on such a large scale before, reactive measures were paramount in the success. I truly believe that the team work and professionalism demonstrated by all units during the entire flood response was unprecedented. I would like to express my thanks to the members of the AHRRSU, PILIS Rescue Service and Pest State Rescue, Hungarian Red Cross, firefighters and the public. It was truly an honour to have served with you all. 

  • Operation Florian

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