Netflix drama High Water about Silesia’s 1997 ‘flood of the millennium’ praised for its authenticity
Twenty-five years after the Flood of the Millennium placed much of Wrocław and Lower Silesia underwater, a new series about the tragic events is topping viewing figures on Netflix.
Nearly 40 percent of the city was submerged, and the catastrophic losses suffered throughout the areas affected were estimated at 12 billion zlotys in what was one of the biggest natural disasters that hit Poland in the 20th century.
The events surrounding the flood are recalled in the series Wielka Woda [High Water], which appeared on Netflix at the beginning of the month.
The series is currently top of Netflix's top 10 most-watched series in Poland. No figures are available yet for viewers in other countries but interest in the English-language trailer on YouTube is already high.
The series, directed by Jan Holoubek and Bartłomiej Ignaciuk, has been widely acclaimed in the media not just for its gripping drama but also for its faithfulness to the real events and its authenticity in showing Poland as it was in the late 1990s.
The six-episode series shows how the flood of 1997 consumed everything in its path, how people fought heroically to defend their property, but also how the disaster could have been avoided if different branches of the authorities at the time had worked more effectively together.
The flood was caused by exceptionally intensive rainfall that occurred in early July. On 4-8 July 1997 in the area between Brno, Katowice and Wrocław a record amount of rain fell.
When mountain rivers carrying huge amounts of water flowed into the Oder, they caused a rapid rise in its level. Neither retention reservoirs nor floodbanks were able to cope with the huge wave.
When the culmination wave reached Wrocław, the water exceeded twice the normal level.
A flood alert was issued on July 6, 1997. Opole, Kłodzko, Nysa, Racibórz and Wrocław were particularly badly affected.
The wave hit Wrocław on July 12, 1997, and flooded almost 40 percent of the city, destroying property, flooding apartments, stores, offices, and almost completely paralysing the city.
Many people were trapped in their homes and had to be supplied with food and drinking water by the emergency services.
The outcome of the disaster was tragic. At least 56 people died as a direct result of the floods. 2,600 towns and villages were under water, of which as many as 1,350 were almost completely flooded. The waters damaged around 700 000 houses and 800 schools. Around 4 000 bridges were torn down.
The losses throughout the country were estimated at 12 billion PLN.
The scale of damage was so great that the catastrophe was called the Flood of the Millennium.
The series follows the fate of the protagonists starting from May 25, 1997, when officials from Lower Silesian are discussing the upcoming visit of Pope John Paull II.
The authorities are preoccupied with the route of the popemobile and downplay a fax heralding a flood threat to Wrocław.
"What flood?” they say. “There is a drought after all."
One of the most important points of the plot is the plan of the Wrocław authorities to blow up floodbanks in the surrounding villages, which would have protected the city from destruction but would have resulted in the flooding of smaller towns and villages.
The makers of the series are keen to point out that it is not a documentary. However, many are lauding the authenticity of the series, for example, the scenes of local people coming out of their homes to help, and especially when a bus is commandeered to take patients from a hospital to safety.
Another scene shows the evacuation of animals from the city zoo, which actually occurred in Opole, while a moment of comedy is offered when we see a group of frightened rats cast adrift on a wooden panel.
Much effort was clearly taken to capture the atmosphere of Wrocław as it was in 1997. The streets not underwater are full of Polonez and Fiat Cinquecento cars, and hits from the era play from radios.
The men wear suits that seem a size too big for them while the women sport characteristic hairstyles from the era.
Original TV footage is blended into the film, for example footage taken from a helicopter shows viewers the extent of the flooding as it really was.
Twenty-five years seems like a long time to wait for the events to be serialised. The producers say that the excellent HBO series Chernobyl was an inspiration as it showed how to tell a disaster story in an engaging way that combines facts, the atmosphere of the period and a compelling drama.
A second reason offered is that it is only now that technology makes it possible to recreate a city underwater in a credible way.
The series-makers’ hopes that the series will capture the attention of audiences outside Poland in the way that Chernobyl did have received a boost as the English-language trailer for High Water on YouTube has already had more than half a million views.