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Residents of flood-stricken German towns say they got inadequate warning of deluge

Debris litters the riverbank as workers use heavy machinery in Ahrweiler, Germany.
Workers using heavy machinery begin to tear down a flood-damaged bridge over the Ahr River in Ahrweiler, Germany, on Friday.
(Frank Jordans / Associated Press)

Like other residents of his town in Germany, Wolfgang Huste knew a flood was coming. What nobody told him, he says, was how bad it would be.

The 66-year-old antiquarian bookseller in Ahrweiler said the first serious warning to evacuate or move to higher floors of buildings close to the Ahr River came through loudspeaker announcements around 8 p.m. July 14. Huste then heard a short emergency siren blast and church bells ring, followed by silence.

“It was spooky, like in a horror film,” he said.

Huste rushed to rescue his car from an underground garage. By the time he parked it on the street, the water was up to his knees. Five minutes later, safely indoors, he saw his vehicle floating down the street. He would learn later that he also lost books dating back to the early 1500s and estimates his total losses at more than $235,000.

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

With the confirmed death toll from last week’s floods in Germany and neighboring countries passing 210, with almost 150 still missing and the economic cost expected to run into the billions, others in Germany have asked why the emergency systems designed to warn people of the impending disaster didn’t work.

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Sirens in some towns failed when the electricity was cut. In other locations, there were no sirens at all; volunteer firefighters had to go knocking on people’s doors to tell them what to do.

Huste acknowledged that few could have predicted the speed with which the water would rise. But he pointed across the valley to a building that houses Germany’s Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, where first responders from across the country train for possible disasters.

“In practice, as we just saw, it didn’t work, let’s say, as well as it should,” Huste said. “What the state should have done, it didn’t do. At least not until much later.”

Local officials who were responsible for triggering disaster alarms in the Ahr Valley on the first night of flooding have kept a low profile in the days since the deluge. At least 132 people died in the Ahr Valley alone.

Authorities in Rhineland-Palatinate state took charge of the disaster response after the floods, but they declined Friday to comment on what mistakes might have been made on the night disaster struck.

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“People are looking at a life in ruins here. Some have lost relatives, there were many dead,” said Thomas Linnertz, the state official now coordinating the disaster response. “I can understand the anger very well. But on the other hand, I have to say again: This was an event that nobody could have predicted.”

The head of Germany’s federal disaster agency, Armin Schuster, acknowledged to public broadcaster ARD this week that “things didn’t work as well as they could have.”

His agency is trying to determine how many sirens were removed after the end of the Cold War, and the country plans to adopt a system known as “cell broadcast” that can send alerts to all cellphones in a particular area.

In the town of Sinzig, resident Heiko Lemke recalled how firefighters came knocking on doors at 2 a.m., long after the floods had caused severe damage upriver in Ahrweiler.

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Despite a flood in 2016, nobody had expected the waters of the Ahr to rise as high as they did in his community last week, Lemke said.

“They were evacuating people,” he said. “We were totally confused because we thought that wasn’t possible.”

Within 20 minutes the water had flooded the ground floor of his family’s house, but they decided it was too dangerous to venture out, he said.

“We wouldn’t have managed to make it around the corner,” said his wife, Daniela Lemke.

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Twelve residents of a nearby assisted living facility for people with disabilities drowned in the flood.

Police are investigating whether staff members at the facility could have done more to save the residents, but so far there is no suggestion they could face criminal penalties for failing to issue timely warnings.

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

Now that he knows of the flood risk, Heiko Lemke hope those things happen.

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


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