The flood of 2014, which passed through multiple southeast European countries, was the worst one since records began 120 years. It severely affected nineteen places throughout Serbia. According to Dusko Krstic, who lives in Obrenovac, 95% of his city was destroyed. Five years later the city has been completely rebuilt.

“In the first days after the flood most people thought Obrenovac would become a ghost town where no people would live. We had a lot of floods inthe past, but those not to this extent.”

Nerve-racking moments full of fear for the place called home. That’s the scenery Dusko Krstic described moments after the major flood of May 2014 in his city Obrenovac, located near Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

“We own the land here; we built our own houses here. It’s not an easy decision to just move. At the end, all people came back to their houses. They started renovating, restarting their businesses or jobs.”

The devil is in the detail

First it was the rain. Record-breaking amounts of rain which fell in the western part of Serbia. This let the water level in the rivers rise at a rapidpace, triggered a huge number of landslides. Tens of thousands were forced to flee their home, away from their normally safe haven.

Especially the level in smaller tributaries like Kolubara grew substantially. This came as a surprise for Red Cross Serbia worker Ranko Demirovic who managed the recovery teams in Obrenovac after the flood. “The big rivers such as the Sana river didn’t make any problems in that time. It was the small rivers who caused the trouble.” Something which was enormously played down. “The big rivers are built to have good protection measures. They can adapt a huge amount of water, but these small rivers were underestimated.”

Obrenovac is cornered by a river and a tributary, Sana and Kolubara.
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Financial support was provided by the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Union on the basis of assessment on the disaster effects implemented by the Serbian government. That money brought the city back to before the flood, to the city it used to be. Like nothing happened.

Walking through this city now, you wouldn’t see the damage that has been done by the 2014 flood. A city which at first sight seems like any other, with ordinary stone houses and a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere. Looking more closely you can see the betrayers: the brand-new painted houses, the partially tainted walls and the different types of stones.

Awareness

“People at that time, were really aware of what was happening. I was amazed how patient they were, how they would listen to instruction we were being given,” remembered Demirovic from those moments in theaftermath. One in particular stuck with him. “The task of my team was to rescue people out of a school in Obrenovac. We didn’t have any clear information on the number. We approached the school, put the boat to the side, and I entered the school by myself to see the principal. Inside, theground floor was totally flooded. And it was then, that I figured out 3500 people needed to be evacuated. And I have twelve seats in my boat.”

The school where Ranko and his team had to evacuate 3500 persons. Photo: Suzanna Demey

“I remember when I stepped towards the stairs and looked up everyone was looking at what I would say. I told them the truth. There were only a few angry voices, but they eventually faded away. Because they saw we came here to help, that we were honest.”

Prevention

Ranko does say that because of the climate change the floods will get more severe in the Western Balkan region. “Previously, in this period of time [April], we could expect some kind of flood. Since last year, this has moved to June or July.”

Those changes will bring “worse times to the Western Balkans.” Even though the risk of floods is not something that lingers in the minds of citizens Dusko points out. “I am not sure people think about the floods, or that it could happen again.”

“It is normal to think about ordinary things, and to not live in fear every day.”

He is more worried about the prevention that is now in place. “The water destroyed the dams on several places. Those were renovated but were kept the same height. Nothing was done to improve the protection system.”

Red Cross Serbia has learned a lot from the flood according to Ranko. “It’s not only about being prepared all the time, you have to go a step further, prevent it from happening.”

In his opinion, you cannot reach the point where you are fully prepared for a disaster of such an extent. “We cannot be ready with all the fancy equipment and well-trained people when nature comes. And when nature is bringing you something new, it is a challenge.”