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Germany

German Aid Workers Await the Worst

Thousands of relief workers are helping cities from Dresden to Passau prevent the biggest flood disaster in years from claiming yet more lives. But with river waters rising, no end is in sight for the misery.

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For some relief workers, like these firemen in Grimma, all there is to do is look on as the waters rise

The hardest thing for a flood relief worker to cope with is watching people look, stunned and helpless, as water fills and slowly destroys their homes.

"All they can do is look on as the water pours in," says 29-year-old Stephen Duda, an employee with the German federal disaster relief agency THW (Technische Hilfswerke) from the scene of some of the worst flooding in Dresden in 150 years. Thousands have been driven from their homes and the flooding has caused damages estimated in the billions of euros.

"There is absolutely nothing they can do to keep the water from coming," he tells DW-WORLD, with a tone of exasperation.

For two days now, Duda and hundreds of colleagues – mostly volunteers who have taken vacation time from their day jobs to help – have been working in Dresden filling sandbags and stacking them in order to save landmarks, streets and homes from the rising Elbe River.

On Friday morning, officials confirmed that the Elbe broke the 8.77 meter mark (28.7 feet) set by the record floods of 1845, when it rose to 9 meters (29.5 feet). Water levels in the summer tend to average about 2 meters.

More than 1,500 THW workers from 150 regional offices have been deployed to aid in flood relief efforts across the states of Saxony and Bavaria, where flooding has been the worst so far. Though natural disaster management is usually the role of states, the national THW can also be dispatched in times of crisis.

Locals pitch in to save their city

Duda says they've received a generous amount of help from Dresden locals. He says people have been showing up with shovels to help fill sandbags, and that even those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed by the floods have come out to help their friends and neighbors.

"People are coming by and asking, 'What can I do? How can I help? Where do you need us to go?" he said.

For many flood victims, helping out serves as a diversion from a tragedy that has affected them personally.

"It's important for them, and everybody, to build a sense of community right now. These people suffer a little less knowing that their neighbors and other residents are helping out," Duda said.

Volunteers are busy doing everything they can to secure homes in the area by sandbagging doors and windows or covering them with hardwood boards and plastic sheeting. Sandbags are also being piled up in the streets to keep floodwaters from reaching places that haven't already been overrun.

Currently, he says, the THW has plenty of people on the scene, working in shifts with a few hours of rest in between, doing all they can to prevent the worst.

But when you're dealing with nature, no amount of prevention can provide certainty, and Duda says he fears the worst is yet to come. "We're just going to have to wait and see now how the water climbs. The danger is definitely still there," he warns.

Red Cross coordinates relief during "chaos"

Meanwhile, in a drier part of Dresden, Beate Lowke spends her day answering a phone that never seems to stop ringing. A worker for the Dresden chapter of the Red Cross, Lowke is helping organize volunteers and collect donations for the relief effort.

Lowke notes that the city is at Alarm Level Four, the absolute highest for Dresden in a natural disaster. Virtually every organization has a hand in the aid effort – all of the city's emergency personnel and volunteers have been called to duty, including the all-volunteer staff of the Red Cross.

Lowke says the Red Cross has been inundated with so many phone calls and people showing up at the door to help that they don't even know what to do with them.

"The conditions are a bit chaotic right now," she says. "But the people of Dresden are outstanding – they all want to help. I'm totally overwhelmed."

The charitable organization is preparing to distribute money, clean clothing and necessities to those hardest hit by the floods and she expect the first major wave of flood victims on Friday. In addition to the relief supplies the Red Cross has already collected, German department stores are also contributing goods, she said.

Lowke said flood victims are most in need of t-shirts, socks, warm clothing, hygiene articles, water, food, flashlights, batteries, and, for a city covered several-meters deep in water and mud, rubber boots.

But workers at the Red Cross are lucky compared to other relief foot soldiers in Dresden.

"I'm sitting in my dry office and came to work just like normal today," Lowke says. "If we weren't watching television, we might not know what was going on. But I still don't know how I'm going to get home tonight. There's only one bridge still open over the Elbe, and it could already be covered with water now."

Hard to describe the emotional damage

It's safe to say that no one back at the front lines near the Elbe feels removed from the tangible impact of the flooding.

Duda of the THK is still tirelessly filling sandbags at the water’s edge. He reflects on the magnitude of the disaster, one of the many he’s seen in his 14 years working for the relief agency.

"I've been on a lot of foreign missions that were worse than this," he says. "Last year, I was in El Salvador after the earthquakes and also other tragedies that were considerably worse. Still, it's very hard to describe the emotional feeling one has when you see people sitting in front of their homes with resignation, watching as the water comes closer and closer."