SHARE
COPY LINK

FLOODS

German flood victims struggle to rebuild communities a year on

In Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in western Germany, residents are still waiting for the return of normal life a year after the town was devastated by deadly flash floods - and many feel forgotten by authorities.

Iris Muenn-Buschow und her husband Michael Buschow (R), organisers of the demo 'the Ahr valley stands up', at their destroyed house in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Rhineland-Palatinate, western Germany, almost one year after the region was devastated by floods.
Iris Muenn-Buschow und her husband Michael Buschow (R), organisers of the demo 'the Ahr valley stands up', at their destroyed house in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Rhineland-Palatinate, western Germany, almost one year after the region was devastated by floods. Photo: Ina FASSBENDER / AFP

Around 18,000 inhabitants, or more than half the local population, were affected by the disaster in this once picturesque town in western Germany known for its thermal baths.

The anniversary of the night of July 14th, 2021 will be marked on Thursday with the visit of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The town mayor, Guido Orthen, will be able to show Scholz roads cleared of the muck and debris strewn by the flood waters that submerged the town.

But a return to the way things were “will still take time”, he says, with the rebuild very much a work in progress.

READ ALSO: One year on – how life has changed for German flood survivors

“We still have temporary infrastructure, temporary playgrounds, temporary schools, temporary roads that make life possible,” he says.

None of the 18 bridges that used to cross the Ahr river is functional yet, with three temporary crossings installed in their place.

‘Disenchantment’

The traces of the flood are everywhere, from the collapsed banks by the roadside to the high-water mark on many of the buildings.

While officials may want to rebuild things as quickly as possible, they are also under pressure to make sure residents are protected from future floods.

As it stands, “we are still living in the same dangerous situation as a year ago”, Orthen says, putting residents in a state of anxiety any time bad weather is forecast.

In Germany, 185 people were killed in the disaster. The majority of the fatalities were in the Ahr valley, which winds along 40 kilometres (25 miles) to where the river joins the Rhine to the south of Bonn.

Mayor Orthen is dismayed that protective measures to keep residents safe from future floods are subject to interminable bureaucratic discussions.

In zones with high flood risk, the houses that have been destroyed are not permitted to be rebuilt, while those that were damaged can be repaired.

Moreover, town officials face a mountain of paperwork, with Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler expected to submit 1,400 requests for reconstruction projects by the end of June 2023.

A ruined building in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler after the floods in July 2021.

A ruined building in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler after the floods in July 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

“We won’t be able to,” Orthen says. Even with reinforcements, his staff is “exhausted”.

After a year of living in a “state of emergency”, the elected official sees “disenchantment” and a “feeling of powerlessness” growing among his residents.

Over 2,000 people have left Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in the last year.

In the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, only €500 million in aid has been handed out of the total €15 billion set aside.

The slow progress is an “affront to those affected”, according to conservative state legislator Horst Gies, quoted in the General Anzeiger daily.

In the neighbouring region of North Rhine-Westphalia, €1.6 billion of government support has been approved for use, out of a total of €12.3 billion.

‘We want to exist’

In the town of Sinzig, around 15 kilometres from Ahrweiler, candles have been lit in front of a former care home for the mentally disabled, where 12 residents lost their lives in the floods.

The organisation that ran the establishment, Lebenshilfe, is still looking for a location to open a new facility.

IN PICTURES: The aftermath of Germany’s catastrophic floods 

“Our discussions with the mayor’s office and the local administration still haven’t produced anything,” says Ulrich van Bebber from Lebenshilfe.

Frustration is building among those trying to rebuild their lives as promised help is slow to arrive.

“We want to exist in the eyes of Germany,” says Iris Muenn-Buschow, the ground floor of her home still in the middle of repair works.

“We have the impression that everything else that goes on in the world is more important than what happens here in Germany,” she says.

With her husband, she has founded an organisation called “the Ahr valley stands up” (“das Ahrtal steht auf”) which has organised a series of protests.

“Nobody has forgotten the Ahr valley and the other regions,” Rhineland-Palatinate state prime minister Malu Dreyer said recently, stressing the extent of the work still left to do.

By Jean-Philippe LACOUR

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

FLOODS

How flash floods left a trail of destruction in western Germany

The dramatic floods of July 14th and 15th, 2021 killed more than 220 people in Europe, leaving a trail of destruction in Germany and Belgium, and damage in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. We looked back at the devastating natural disaster.

How flash floods left a trail of destruction in western Germany

A heavy toll

After two days of torrential rain, flood waters carried away nearly everything in their path, devastating entire communities.

Western Germany was hit worst by the flooding. The state of Rhineland-Palatinate registered 49 deaths, while North Rhine-Westphalia said 135 were killed. One person died in Bavaria and in all, over 800 were injured.

The total cost of the damage in Germany is estimated to be more than €30 billion.

The floods destroyed railways, roads, bridges, electricity pylons and mobile towers, as well as disrupting the supply of gas, electricity and water in a number of places.

Across the two worst-hit regions, 85,000 households were affected and some 10,000 businesses impacted.

READ ALSO: Flood anniversary prompts sadness and soul searching in Germany

In the east of Belgium, 39 people lost their lives in the high waters. The Wallonia region was particularly badly affected, with some 100,000 people caught up in the catastrophe and 48,000 buildings damaged.

Climate extremes

In the 24 hours before the floods, the Ahr valley in Germany saw more than 90 litres (24 gallons) of rain per square metre, while the average for the entire month of July is just 70 litres.

The magnitude of the downpour broke records for Germany since meteorological records began.

Other factors contributed to make the floods worse. After a rainy spring, the earth was already well saturated with water.

Brothers Bernd and Gerd Gasper hold each other in front of their flood-damaged parent's house in Altenahr-Altenstadt a few days after the flood disaster.

Brothers Bernd and Gerd Gasper hold each other in front of their flood-damaged parent’s house in Altenahr-Altenstadt a few days after the flood disaster. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

At the same time, the region’s steep, narrow valleys channelled the flood waters, while the impermeability of the developed land along the river’s edge stopped much of it from draining away. 

IN PICTURES: The aftermath of Germany’s catastrophic floods 

Experts have pointed to the influence of man-made climate change, which increases the likelihood of extreme weather events. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, leading to higher rainfall in shorter spaces of time.

A month after the floods, an international scientific study using statistical models showed the link between global warming and the recent catastrophe.

In the affected zone, stretching from Belgium to Switzerland, they demonstrated that the maximum precipitation had increased by between three to 19 percent due to climate change.

READ ALSO: More floods, droughts and heatwaves: How climate change will impact Germany

Missing alarm

Since the catastrophe, a number of failures in the early-warning system have come to light.

Six days before the disaster on July 8th, the European warning system flagged a high risk of flooding in the region.

The German meteorological service and civil defence also put out warnings.

But these failed to be heeded.

READ ALSO: Germany knew its disaster warning system wasn’t good enough – why wasn’t it improved?

Residents “got the impression it was about heavy rain” but the “magnitude was not signalled” clearly enough, a German official said after the floods.

A criminal inquiry was opened for “negligent homicide”, targeting the Ahrweiler district chief, among others.

The German government now intends to send alerts by phone, a system known as “cell broadcasting”.

Similar to a text message, the warning is sent to the mobile phones of people in at-risk areas. Unlike a normal text, the alert is sent and received even when the network is overloaded.

Officials also want to reinstall sirens, many of which were taken down in recent years.

SHOW COMMENTS