DRESDEN, Germany/LITOMERICE, Czech Republic (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Germans, Hungarians and Czechs were evacuated from their homes on Wednesday as soldiers raced to pile up sandbags to hold back rising waters in the region's worst floods in a decade.
The deluge has killed at least 12 people in central Europe since the weekend. Water started subsiding in Prague and Passau, but fears grew for Bratislava, Budapest and parts of Germany which forecasters say will be hit in the next few days.
About 1,000 people had to leave their homes in the baroque German city of Dresden, which was devastated by floods in 2002 when the Elbe burst its banks. Residents paddled up streets in boats as soldiers drove past in tanks.
Further north, authorities in the town of Halle on the Saale told hundreds of residents to leave their homes. Television pictures showed a bare-legged man wading to work through grey water in a suit jacket, clutching his trousers and briefcase in one hand.
"We are shocked by the pictures from the flood areas," said German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler before a meeting with heads of industry groups to assess the damage.
Roesler announced a ten-point plan to help reconstruction work and to help firms get credit from the KfW state development bank.
"Nobody should be left alone ... We will consider in concrete terms what can we do, for example providing financial aid without inundating people with bureaucracy," he said in a television interview.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, facing an election in September, has promised 100 million euros ($130 million) in aid.
Germany's BDI industry federation said it did not expect the floods to have a significant impact on growth in Europe's biggest economy.
"We don't think (the forecast for) slight growth will be cut, but maybe delayed," BDI head Ulrich Grillo told reporters.
Nikolaus von Bomhard, chairman of the world's biggest reinsurer Munich Re, said it was too early to estimate the scale of the loss, but businesses and households would bear the brunt of the cost as many did not have adequate flood insurance.
"The macroeconomic loss will be much bigger than the insured loss ... partly because in the early days the industry was quite reluctant to offer (flood insurance). That has changed," he told Reuters.
His company put the cost of the so-called "once in a century" floods of 2002 at 16.5 billion euros and insurance claims to the industry at 3.5 billion euros.
Water receded in Prague, although the medieval Charles Bridge remained closed. Floods spread to low-lying northern areas of the Czech Republic near the industrial city of Usti nad Labem. About 3,700 people were rescued after some water barriers broke.
A barrier broke at the Lovochemie chemical plant in Lovosice, north of Prague, flooding the factory. Workers and dangerous substances had already been moved. Several villages, smaller towns and acres of farm land were submerged.
Czech emergency services said they had rescued 19,000 people and the government freed up 5.3 billion crowns ($270 million)from this year's budget for flood repairs.
"Unfortunately it is still not over," Prime Minister Petr Necas said.
In the Slovak capital Bratislava, low-lying parks and a waterfront Danube cafe were flooded but barriers were expected to hold back the worst. The water level was expected to break through 10 meters on Thursday, an all-time high.
In Budapest, 1,200 people piled up sandbags and roads were closed near the Danube.
A road bridge to the popular Margaret Island was closed and tourists from two hotels there were moved. Animals from a small zoo on the island have been transferred to the main Budapest Zoo.
($1 = 0.7650 euros)
($1 = 19.7666 Czech crowns)
Additional reporting by Gernot Heller, Jan Lopatka, Robert Mueller in Prague, Krisztina Than in Budapest, Jonathan Gould in Frankfurt and Chris Vellacott and Sinead Cruise in London; Reuters Television; Writing by Madeline Chambers in Berlin; Editing by Andrew Heavens