The full devastation wreaked by Germany’s cataclysmic floods has emerged slowly. As the waters subside, survivors have cautiously waded back through the mud and rubble to salvage what is left of their communities. Last week an unusual zone of low pressure trapped between two areas of high pressure meant that two months’ rain fell in 48 hours. The Ahr, Erft, Swist, Trierbach and Volme, usually less than a metre deep as they wind through small towns and villages on their way to the Rhine, were transformed into fierce and destructive torrents.
Rhinelanders are familiar with floods but none this brutal. So far over 150 people are known to have died; more than a hundred are missing. Thousands have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed. Tens of thousands are without running water, electricity, medical care or clean clothing. Some areas remain accessible only by air or water, as the army rushes to build temporary bridges. There was also partial flooding in southern Bavaria and Saxony but not on the same calamitous scale.
Angela Merkel was visiting Joe Biden in Washington. The first politician on the scene was Armin Laschet, the minister-president of North Rhine Westphalia and the CDU candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor in September’s elections. Laschet was praised at first for not taking an entourage of journalists to capture favourable shots of him wading through the floodwaters. (Images of Gerhard Schröder visiting flood-stricken eastern Germany in 2002 are thought to have helped secure his election victory.) But other senior politicians gradually arrived and Laschet was caught on camera laughing while President Frank-Walter Steinmeier thanked local emergency workers for their efforts. Commentators speculate that the momentary loss of composure will cost Laschet votes. According to a survey in Der Spiegel, only 26 per cent of people thought he had proved himself an adequate leader during a regional crisis.
Last weekend my family and I were two hundred kilometres south of the floods, visiting my parents-in-law in a town on the banks of the River Main in Hesse. The weather was hot and sunny and the river was at its normal level, though a historic flood marker showed the many times it has stood underwater. The streets of the town centre are lined with Fachwerkhäuser (the timber-framed houses you see in illustrations to Grimms’ fairytales). My father-in-law showed us a house that had been recently renovated, explaining to the children how the gaps in the timber frame are filled with wattle and daub: strips of reeds alternating with an overlay of mud, gravel and straw, which is left to dry until solid enough to support the next layer. Later, in the garden, they put a ball of the daub given to their grandfather by a local builder in a bowl of water and watched as it became a heap of soft mud. The washed-away houses we had seen on the news suddenly made more sense.
But modern buildings, bridges and roads were also destroyed on an unimaginable scale. There was simply too much water. On Friday a photo of Blessem, a district in the commuter town of Erftstadt just outside of Cologne, made the front pages of international newspapers. It showed a giant mudslide caused by an overflowing gravel quarry that had dragged houses, cars and part of an old castle with it. Nearby, vehicles were engulfed as stretches of motorway disappeared in minutes under twelve metres of water. Some people escaped through open car windows; we don’t know yet about those who could not.
The extreme weather front was hundreds of kilometres wide. There has been universal praise for the untiring efforts of local and federal emergency services, and the solidarity of local communities, but many people are also asking questions: did the flood warnings come early enough? Were the rescue efforts efficient? The European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), set up in response to the floods along the Elbe and Donau in 2002, issued extreme flood warnings on Saturday, 10 July and more precise predictions in the days following.
On 13 and 14 July some Rhineland residents received warnings via local media and the federal government’s NINA warning app, designed to send notifications about local emergencies but downloaded by only nine million people nationwide. In other areas the fire brigade drove through with megaphones and advised people to evacuate their houses. But when the flood waters rose, too many were still at home and taken by surprise. Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at Reading University, has called the high death toll a ‘monumental failure of the system’. The president of the German Firefighters Association said it was too early to assign blame or understand what could have been done better.
The opposition FDP and Green Party called for a shift to a more centralised disaster management system under the aegis of the federal government. Emergency relief in Germany is organised at a local level through a combination of the fire brigade, which is 95 per cent voluntary, the Technisches Hilfswerk (THW), a civil protection agency that’s also largely voluntary, the Red Cross, police and ambulance services. In the middle of the storm, when communication networks stopped working, co-ordination between the different agencies was barely possible. For a while, fire engines and ambulances from neighbouring districts were parked on the Nürburgring Formula One race track, unable to help.
News reports from the Rhineland described parents throwing their children from a first-floor window into the arms of neighbours, and clambering out themselves just in time, as their house was washed away beneath them. The 68-year-old owner of a building company was asked to use one of his diggers to clear the outlet pipe of a dam to release the water pressure and stop the dam from breaking. He didn’t think he could ask any of his employees to take on such a dangerous operation and so did the job himself. A girl returning to her family’s mud-slicked home found a rack of mini pink champagne bottles, a nineteenth-birthday present from her friends, had survived; her school exam certificate had not.
On the drive back to Berlin I saw a caravan of fire engines on the motorway, at least twenty of them, towing rubber dinghies, apparently on their way home from helping in the rescue effort. A while later I saw THW trucks streaming in the opposite direction, going to join in the arduous task of cleaning up. A €400 million relief package has been announced, funded by both federal and local government.
All the major political parties linked the extreme weather to global warming and acknowledged that such conditions are becoming more frequent. Reducing carbon emissions is now more than ever firmly on the mainstream political agenda. Merkel said that this flood, the worst in sixty years, surpassed imagination, but with North America still burning and parts of China now underwater, perhaps we need to reimagine the possible.