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Germany

Revisiting the Heart of Destruction

A year after devastating floods lashed eastern Germany, Chancellor Schröder is once again visiting the tiny Saxon town of Grimma, which became a potent symbol for the catastrophe and the consequent outpouring of aid.

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Bearing the brunt of the floods -- a collapsed bridge in Grimma last year.

It was a picture that few in Germany can forget.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sloshing through knee-high water in his Wellingtons, as he toured the submerged town of Grimma in Saxony in the immediate aftermath of the floods last year, shock written all over his face at the shambles around him. It was in Grimma that the chancellor announced his government’s emergency flood relief package worth €385 million for the water-logged regions.

Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder besucht vom Hochwasser betroffene Städte - hier in Grimma

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Grimma in August 2002.

Television images and photographs of the chancellor’s visit to the devastated town (photo) ensured that the 18,500-strong Grimma became almost a household name in Germany, symptomatic for the worst floods in more than 200 years.

Many also believe the high-publicity visit helped Schröder – in the thick of an election campaign – turn the tide of public opinion in his favor just ahead of voting in September.

Now a year after that turbulent period, Chancellor Schröder is back in Grimma to see for himself the progress the town has made in getting back on its feet. On Wednesday, Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries and Saxon Premier Georg Milbrandt accompany the chancellor on a tour of the town located on the banks of the Mulde river.

Shattered by the floods

Located 30 kilometers east of Leipzig, Grimma was hard hit by the deluge last August, when the swollen river Mulde burst its banks and rushed into the town, swamping large parts of it.

About 40 buildings in the old town quarter were damaged beyond repair, 500 others were badly hit. Some 2,000 residential homes and 450 businesses were destroyed in 13 outlying districts. The raging waters uprooted trees and lampposts, crippled public transport and ruined entire streets.

Aufräumarbeiten in Grimma

A woman removes the rubble out of her house in the village of Grimma, Germany, Tuesday Aug. 20, 2002.

About 2,200 residents were directly affected by the floods, many of them left homeless. Authorities estimated damages worth €120 million, notwithstanding damages to buildings, which alone amounted to €200 million.

At the time, aid workers and soldiers from the German armed forces rushed into the town to fill sandbags, strengthen dikes and help residents cope with the tragedy. The residents of Grimma mobilized themselves in what became a model example of solidarity in times of crisis. Financial aid flowed in from all parts of Germany and even abroad, contributing more than €12.5 million to the town’s official donation account.

"We’ve surfaced again"

A year later, Grimma is on the way to recovery. At the end of October last year, it began rebuilding two of the worst-hit main streets, and since then the town resembles a construction site.

On Wednesday, Chancellor Schröder officially reopens an almost 300-year-old pedestrian bridge over the Mulde, badly destroyed by the floods and refurbished at a cost of €360,000. He is also expected to speak with local businessmen and participate in an ecumenical church service in the evening.

The town and the surrounding districts have also organized a five-day series of events under the motto, "We’ve surfaced again," the aim of which is to show how the region has made use of the generous aid it received and to thank the thousands of helpers who pitched in to save the town.

Flood relief remains sticky issue

Saxon Premier Milbrandt said on Tuesday he was pleased with the pace of rebuilding. "We should make an effort to stick to deadlines," he said. "After all the money from Berlin is not going to be endlessly available."

But the issue of flood relief from Schröder’s government remains a controversial one.

Last week, German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin was booed by local residents as he toured the city of Dresden and surrounding areas to unveil a sweeping flood-prevention legislation package. Many demanded more federal aid for reconstruction and criticized the government for failing to honor promises made during last year's election campaign. Even Premier of Saxony-Anhalt, Wolfgang Böhmer demanded more flood relief from Berlin, saying the refurbishment of dikes in his state by 2010 would cost up to €310 million.

Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries however said in a radio interview earlier this week that the coordination of aid between the federal government and the states was functioning well. But she admitted that the cooperation on the ground level, at the scene of destruction hadn’t always been "satisfactory." "We’ve clearly worked on that, we’ve passed new regulations and have worked on a new strategy to protect the population in Germany," she stressed.

"It’ll definitely be better the next time," she added. But nobody in Grimma hopes there will be a next time.

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