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ANALYSIS: Why Germany faces tough questions over its disaster response

ANALYSIS: Why Germany faces tough questions over its disaster response
A fire and rescue worker surveys the scene in Mayschoß, Rhineland-Palatinate. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler
Pressure is mounting on German authorities to review disaster warning systems after flooding claimed the lives of more than 170 people, injured hundreds, while the search for missing people continues.

What’s happened?

Germany is coming to terms with the extreme flooding that has killed at least 177 people, with the death toll likely to rise. It is the worst natural disaster to hit the country since the North Sea Flood of 1962 killed hundreds of people in the Hamburg area.

The clean-up and search for missing people in the western regions of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia is ongoing after the catastrophic flooding in western regions on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. 

Houses and infrastructure have been destroyed. Survivors are relying on emergency accommodation and are being provided with food and clean water. Many regions have no power or basic facilities after the water swept in and wiped everything out. Experts say it will take months and years to rebuild towns.

READ ALSO: Rebuilding Germany’s flood-ravaged areas ‘will take years’

Why have so many people died?

There is no clear answer for this, especially at this stage. But the high number of deaths has raised questions over why people were caught by surprise by the flash flooding. Opposition politicians – as well as some scientists – say the death toll has revealed failures in Germany’s disaster response and the way it prepares for flooding. 

Accounts by survivors of the floods have repeatedly mentioned the sheer amount of water – and the speed – that engulfed their communities in minutes, signalling an extreme weather event of epic proportions. However, the question remains: could more have been done to warn people and save lives?

READ ALSO:

What do we know about weather warnings?

As well as local and national weather warnings, the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) – which was set up in 2002 after devastating floods on the Elbe and Danube – sounded the alarm early.

The first EFAS warnings were sent to the relevant national authorities on July 10th – days before the flash floods hit on July 13th and 14th. 

“In this case, flood warnings were sent to national authorities about the high flood risk in the coming days. The warning system is not responsible for warnings to the population or evacuations,” said EU Commission spokeswoman Sonya Gospodínova.

EFAS messages sent to Germany and other affected countries were updated several times, with more than 25 warnings sent for specific regions on the Rhine and Meuse rivers by July 14th, according to EU data.

In an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper, British researcher Hannah Cloke, who helped set up the system, called the German flood disaster “a monumental failure of the system” and blamed “breaks in the chain” of preparation.

The professor said she was surprised that so many people died when everyone knew what was coming and there was plenty of time to get people to safety.

Cloke said after the alerts go out, it is then up to national authorities to decide what to do with the information. 

Germany’s federal meteorological service the German Weather Service (DWD) passed warnings on to local authorities, according to spokesman Uwe Kirsche. But he added: “As a federal authority, the DWD is not responsible for initiating evacuations or other measures on-site… that is a task for the local authorities.” 

Did the message get through to residents?

German authorities say residents in affected areas were warned. But did the warnings from meteorologists reach everyone on the ground – or did they reach people too late?

In Germany, the 16 federal states are responsible for disaster control. Local authorities can use sirens, loudspeaker announcements or radio and TV bulletins to warn residents of acute danger or issue evacuation orders.

Warnings are also issued via apps like Nina or Katwarn on smartphones. Was there a breakdown in communication, though?

Some survivors told reporters on the ground that they didn’t see any official warnings, and instead were told by family members or neighbours.

A notice on the warning app Nina during a ‘warning day’ to prepare for disasters in Germany last year. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Robert Michael

During a visit to the devastated town of Bad Muenstereifel on Tuesday Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany had a “very good warning system”.

She also insisted: “This was flooding that surpassed our imagination when you see the destruction it wrought” despite last week’s forecasts of torrential downpours.

Flooding caused power outages in several regions of Germany, causing further difficulties and this likely hampered alerts. 

READ ALSO: Merkel defends German flood alerts as death toll climbs

Why didn’t people get SMS text alerts – or more warning?

People are also now questioning why Germany doesn’t have a mass text alert system for situations like this. 

“In the worst flood disaster in nearly 60 years in Germany, with at least 165 deaths, disaster management failed to warn citizens,” wrote Bild newspaper in a damning report.

“Barely functioning sirens, no early evacuations and data protection prevented warning text messages to all affected citizens.”

On Tuesday federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer told Bild that he wanted Germany to implement a so-called mobile broadcast system. This would see SMS alerts sent out to all mobile network users, either in a country or specific area in just a few seconds, in case of emergencies.

Germany has chosen not to base its widespread emergency alerts on this system, unlike other countries such as the Netherlands, Greece, Romania, Italy, or the USA. Instead their digital alerts come through apps. 

READ ALSO: Why weren’t all residents of Germany’s flood zones alerted via text?

Scheuer said Germany didn’t have this system in place due to data protection concerns.

“I am in favour of having these push messages reach citizens via mobile phone providers as well,” the CSU politician told Bild. “But that has always failed because the political will has been lacking in some places.”

Professor Thomas Jäger, chair of International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne, said that more should have been done when the weather warnings came in at an early stage. 

“First, preventive information should be provided, i.e., beforehand.” he told Editorial Network Germany. “And then, in the event of a disaster, (people should be warned) in the classic way: either with loudspeaker trucks, sirens or even the dropping of flyers. You have to be prepared for the fact that the usual channels of information are blocked.

“It doesn’t matter how the message gets through. But it must get there.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel in Bad Muenstereifel on Tuesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa Pool | Oliver Berg

What else are German officials saying?

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on Monday acknowledged that more could be done but pushed back on the criticism. He said: “I don’t rule out that we have to improve one or two things.” But the warnings had worked without any technical problem, Seehofer added.

Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) chief Armin Schuster also said, “Our warnings, our entire warning infrastructure, worked completely.”

There’s also been a debate about whether the federal government should have a bigger role in assisting with these kinds of severe weather warnings. 

But that’s had a mixed reaction. Seehofer said: “It would be completely inconceivable for such a catastrophe to be managed centrally from any one place. You need local knowledge.”

Union faction vice-chairman Thorsten Frei, however, called for a national disaster control law. “Not to undermine federalism – but so that we are able to act when the damage situations go beyond state borders,” the CDU politician told Handelsblatt newspaper.

What happens now?

The focus is still on the search for missing people and support for survivors. But there are already calls for reviews to determine what happened. 

The extreme damage can be seen in Dernau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

The German Firefighters Association called for “a reappraisal and evaluation” after the crisis operation. 

“This should also clarify whether, for example, warning systems need to be adapted,” association president Karl-Heinz Banse told the Augsburger Allgemeine. He suggested more sirens along with the digital alerts. 

At the moment, however, he said it was too early “to make demands or even assign blame.”

“Currently, we are still in the emergency relief phase on the ground,” he said. 

The president of the German Association of Cities, Burkhard Jung, also said that after the emergency, “a crystal-clear analysis” of what can be learned from the storm disaster was needed. 

He said the country needed to take a closer look at communication “in the event of extreme weather”.


Member comments

  1. Readers might be interested to follow the link below and read in greater detail some of the thinking on the floods from a scientific viewpoint.
    One problem with the EFAS warning system is its focus on major rivers. Prof Hannah Cloke might be critical, but it appears to be a fault in the design [she was part of], not to have considered smaller tributaries and extreme weather.

    https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/07/europe-s-deadly-floods-leave-scientists-stunned

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