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Floods of the Century Revisited

Parts of Germany were devastated by floods in August 2003. A year later, rebuilding has been largely completed, but many people are behaving as if it could never happen again.


A wall around the Semper Oper in Dresden could protect it from the next devastating floods

Last August, Germany was taken -- literally -- by storm. The "flood of the century" washed away almost everything in its path and wreaked more than €9 billion ($10.2 billion) of damage across large areas of the country.

When the rain stopped and the water levels of Germany's rivers slowly began to sink, people in Saxony, Saxon-Anhalt, Brandenburg and Bavaria started taking stock of the damage, while the rest of Germany began demonstrating their generosity. They transferred millions into the coffers of aid organizations for flood victims. The German Protestant Church alone recorded the highest ever amount of donations to its emergency aid section: around €64 million, two-thirds of which went toward flood victims.

The government and the states hurriedly passed an emergency package of €4.4 billion in subsidies for the victims. The lion's share, 78 percent, went to Saxony, which was hit worst.

Not as bad as expected

A year on, rebuilding continues, and it really wasn't as bad as had been predicted in the direct wake of the floods. At the time, economists estimated the floods had caused €20 billion in damages.

Around 12,000 companies were affected in Saxony , threatening 100,000 jobs, according to Saxon State Secretary for Economy Andrea Fischer in a statement last week. But the companies didn't all go broke, and the jobs weren't all lost. "We don't know of any business that declared insolvency only because of the flood catastrophe," Fischer said.

The subsidies too, seem to be covering the costs. "We are assuming the money will suffice," state spokesman Hartmut Häckel said on Thursday.

In Dresden, which suffered to the tune of €600 million in damages, most of the harm that was done to the Semper Opera and the Zwinger Palace has been redressed. But little has been done to ensure that the next serious flood won't threaten the buildings and the treasures they house once more. Only constructing a protective wall around them would ensure their safety.

The authorities are concerned that too many people did not learn the right lessons from the disaster. Many have rebuilt their houses on sites which are likely be ravaged again when the next "flood of the century" breaks the dams, according to the Saxon interior ministry.

Environment Minister Steffen Flath said he couldn't understand people who have installed their furnaces or power sources in the cellar once more, when cellars were filled with meters of water last year. Such people couldn't expect the "same solidarity like now" if it happens again, he said. "All of our concepts for protection aim for one or maybe two floods each century," Flath said. More extensive programs were not financially feasible, he contended.

"That's why everyone is advised to take precautions," Flath said. You can carry your furniture up from the cellar to the roof in 24 hours, but you can't do the same with fixed objects, he pointed out.