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Residents Say German Towns Got Little Warning Before Huge Floods

AREILER, Germany (AP) – Like other residents of his city in Germany, Wolfgang Hust knew that a flood was coming. He says that no one told him how bad it would be.

The 66-year-old antiques seller from Ahrweiler said the first serious warning about evacuating or moving to the upper floors of buildings near the Ar River sounded over a loudspeaker around 8:00 pm on July 14. Cough, then heard a short blast of an emergency siren and a church. bells ringing followed by silence.

“It was creepy, like a horror movie,” he said.

Cough rushed to save his car from the underground garage. By the time he parked it on the street, the water was knee-deep. Five minutes later, while in a safe room, he saw his car sailing down the street. He estimates the damage in his shop, where books from the early 16th century were destroyed, at more than 200,000 euros ($ 235,000).

“The warning time was too short,” Huste said.

With the confirmed death toll from last week’s floods in Germany and neighboring countries, which topped 210, almost 150 people are still missing and the economic cost is expected to be in the billions, many ask why emergency systems designed to warning people of an impending disaster, don’t work.

Sirens in some cities stopped working when the power went out. In other places there were no sirens at all; volunteer firefighters had to knock on people’s doors to tell them what to do. The German weekly Der Spiegel reported that in a suburb of Wuppertal, north of Cologne, people were warned by a monk ringing a bell.

Hoost admitted that few could predict how fast the water would rise and spread across cities. But he pointed across the valley to the building that houses the German Federal Office for Civil Protection, where emergency workers from all over the country train for possible disasters.

“In practice, as we just saw, it didn’t work, let’s just say the way it should,” said Huste. “What the state was supposed to do, it did not. At least much later. “

An excavator at work on the banks of the Erft River during clearing operations following a flood in North Rhine-Westphalia.


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An excavator at work on the banks of the Erft River during clearing operations following a flood in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The German authorities received early warnings from the European Flood Alert System. They came through official channels, leading to increased alarms for firefighters, as well as smartphone users who have installed disaster warning apps, but such apps are not widely used.

Local officials responsible for triggering disaster alarms in the Ahr Valley on the first night of the flood remained in the shadows after the flood. In the Ar valley alone, at least 132 people died.

The authorities of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany took responsibility for the aftermath of the natural disaster after the flood, but declined to comment on what mistakes could have been made on the night of the disaster.

“People here are looking at life in ruins. Some have lost relatives and many have died, ”said Thomas Linnerz, the government official who is now coordinating the response to natural disasters. “I understand anger very well. But on the other hand, I must say again: it was an event that no one could have predicted. “

Armin Schuster, head of the German Federal Emergency Management Agency, BKK, admitted to the public broadcaster ARD that “things are not as good as they could be.”

Soldiers outside a destroyed country guesthouse in Laach, Germany.


CHRISTOPH STACH via Getty Images

Soldiers outside a destroyed country guesthouse in Laach, Germany.

His agency is trying to determine how many sirens have been filmed since the end of the Cold War. Germany is also planning to implement a system known as “cellular broadcasting” that can send alerts to all mobile phones in a specific area.

In the city of Sinzig, Heiko Lemke remembered firefighters knocking on doors at 2 am, long after the flood severely damaged the course of the Ahrweiler River.

Despite severe flooding in 2016, Lemke said, no one expected the water in the Ahr River to rise as high as in his area.

“They evacuated people,” he said. “We were completely confused because we thought it was impossible.”

Within 20 minutes, water flooded the first floor of his family’s home, but they decided it was too dangerous to go outside, he said.

“We couldn’t have turned the corner,” said his wife Daniela Lemke.

Twelve residents of a nearby nursing home for people with disabilities drowned in the flood. Police are investigating whether personnel at the site could have done more to rescue residents, but so far there is no suggestion that authorities could face criminal investigations for failing to warn them in a timely manner.

Experts say such floods will become more frequent and severe due to climate change, and countries will need to adapt, including by revising estimates of future flood risks, improving warning systems and preparing people for similar disasters.

Now that he knows about the risk of flooding, Heiko Lemke hopes that all of this will happen.

“But maybe it would be even better to leave,” he added.

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