Close to 250,000 people fled with washing machines, cows and other possessions from submerged towns and villages Wednesday, while troops piled sandbags on sagging dikes soaked by floodwaters.
The exodus, Holland’s biggest ever, jammed highways with cars and trucks. It added to the wet misery in the southeastern Dutch lowlands, hard hit by the floods that have submerged parts of Europe, killing at least 29 people.
The evacuations have turned vast tracts of village and farmland into ghostly landscapes devoid of people or any movement but the ripple of water.
At risk are not only the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands, but also the centuries-long effort to turn the region’s marsh and floodplain into what are known as polders by building 300 miles of dikes.
The network of dikes, one of the Netherlands’ most prominent features, dates to the Middle Ages.
“The whole problem is that the dikes are soaked to the limit,” said Marij Delissen, a crisis management spokeswoman in Tiel. “The pressure on the dikes just has to decline.”
Soldiers struggled to reinforce dikes weakened by the rampaging Maas and Waal rivers, which have been bearing the brunt of Western Europe’s heavy rains and snow meltoff.
Barge traffic along the Waal, which connects the world’s largest port, Rotterdam, with Germany via the Rhine, has been shut down to prevent damage to the dikes.
Water poured through a dike break Wednesday night in Ochten, east of Tiel. Ed D’Hondt, mayor of the Gelderland provincial capital Nijmegen, said there was a 50 percent chance the dike would wash away despite efforts to plug the gap.
The rising waters spread northward Wednesday, forcing Kampen, a town of 40,000, to build a second, emergency dike. Kampen lies along the Ijsel River, just south of the vast lake known as the Ijselmeer.
The Finance Ministry put the price tag for a “worst-case scenario” of dikes bursting at up to $46 billion.
Some Dutch refused orders to leave their homes, despite threats of fines and jail terms.