swissinfo travelled by helicopter to Engelberg to assess the situation in the central Swiss mountain resort where residents are still cut off from the outside world.This content was published on August 25, 2005 - 16:47
The residents have remained calm and the authorities are encouraging tourists in the resort to leave by air.
The helicopter approach to Engelberg offers an extensive and apocalyptic view of the central Swiss resort severely damaged by flooding and cut in two by the raging waters of the River Aa.
Air is now the only possible way to reach - or leave – the little village tucked away at the very end of the valley at the foot of the Titlis glacier.
In the sky the constant thrumming of blades and rotors begins at sunrise and doesn't stop until nightfall. Food supplies and other basic necessities are being airlifted into the village while tourists are leaving the stricken holiday area.
On the ground, several bridges have been washed away and the access road is impassable. The houses around the train station are still submerged, and the train line flooded over. Access by rail and road is simply impossible.
Despite calmer conditions on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as the return of electricity, which was cut off for several days in the lower part of the village, the situation remains critical.
Geologists at the scene predict that if more rain should fall, there will be a risk of mud and landslides.
Calmness and solidarity are the order of the day in Engelberg despite the extent the catastrophe.
At an emergency committee meeting on Wednesday evening, the communal authorities and local hoteliers agreed to encourage the tourists to leave and not to receive any more for the time being. This decision was taken for security reasons but also to allow time to rebuild and prepare for the important winter season.
Waiting at every crossroads, the same scene is repeated: men and women, wearing boots and carrying buckets, come to the aid of firemen, the military and members of the civil protection service.
"Maybe it's part of our mentality as mountain people," Martin Odermatt explains. "Even if we lose control of the situation temporarily, we don't take rash decisions and we stay cool-headed to do what we can to the best of our ability. No-one has been killed or injured here."
This is the worst flooding in living memory in Engelberg. One elderly couple, the Giovanollis, never believed they would experience such an event. "And we count ourselves very lucky because we live a bit higher up and our house hasn't been affected. Others are much worse off than us."
One of their friends, who just arrived by bicycle, reports that the first floor of his house has been totally devastated. "We have to improvise from one moment to the next. We still have no electricity, hot water or telephone connection."
"We did our best to pump the water to protect ourselves, but it didn't make any difference because the whole area is under water. All we can do is wait until we can talk to our insurance company," the neighbour says.
Another victim, a farmer from a badly affected area, looked dumbfounded at the water coming up to the doors of his barn. Some of his fields are completely flooded. However, he has no feelings of anger: "Luckily my herd is on higher pastures. It's nature and we just have to accept it."
The large numbers of tourists in the village – almost 1,500 at the beginning of the week – are just as positive in the face of events.
Woken in the middle of the night and evacuated, a Dutch couple staying at a campsite will now have to leave their car behind and fly back to their hometown near Eindhoven.
"There were no scenes of panic and we weren't afraid, but it is becoming difficult to manage without electricity and hot water," they say. "Today we were able to get through to our son by mobile phone so that he could organise our trip home."
swissinfo, Mathias Froidevaux in Engelberg
Engelberg has a resident population of 3,900.
By mid-week, up to 1,000 tourists were still in the resort.
Three private helicopter companies and an army Super-Puma are taking part in the emergency operations.
Since Monday, firemen, members of the civil protection service and military personnel have been battling against the torrential waters of the River Aa.
In the space of 48 hours, 190 litres of water per square metre fell on Engelberg in canton Obwalden.
The River Aa, which burst its banks, reached a record speed of 160 cubic metres per second, washing away several bridges and flooding a large part of the village.
It is currently only possible to reach Engelberg by air.
The authorities have announced the construction of an emergency route but have asked all tourists to leave the village for security reasons.
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