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After catastrophic floods, cleanup begins

July 17, 2021

In the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, cleanup work has begun after a flood that destroyed entire buildings. DW's Oliver Pieper reports from Sinzig, on the banks of the Ahr River.

A pile of debris in front of a house
Many homes were destroyed along the Ahr RiverImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

Sinzig on the day of the flood

At 3 a.m. on Thursday, when the Ahr River burst its banks with unprecedented force, Nina and Niklas Aker had just seconds to decide what they wanted to save from their old life. Their 6-year-old daughter, still half asleep, made up her mind quickly: Her in-line skates, her scooter and her violin.

Soon after, with the water up to the couple's waists, they lifted their daughter in their arms, grabbed their little dog and a bag and ran out of their house to their neighbors one street up.

Aker stands outside his house wearing rubber boots in Sinzig
The Akers moved in three years ago, and now their house is filled with mudImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

"There actually comes a moment of panic like that, where you just say, everybody out, everybody out," Niklas Aker told DW.

Thirty-six hours later, this fear for his life has dissipated; Aker — like many of Sinzig's 18,000 inhabitants — is fully occupied with getting his house back into shape as quickly as possible. The water reached a height of 1.4 meters (4.6 feet), and now there's nothing left but mud. "It's like in the Amazon delta," said the 39-year-old with a smile. "Yesterday I thought it would take us 10 years to clean up, and today we're already so far along that we'll soon be able to tear out the flooring."

Only the upper floor remains intact

The basement, where winter tires, oil heating system and tools were kept, has been completely destroyed. The furniture, sofa and cabinets on the first floor are ruined. The much-loved piano from grandmother was found floating on its side. But Aker is glad about the little things that somehow miraculously made it through unscathed.

A piano surrounded by debris
The Akers' much-loved family piano was found floating on its sideImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

"When we reentered the apartment for the first time, the freshly ironed clothes were dry and clean on the sofa, because it had floated but not tipped over. We could carry them out with our freshly washed hands," said Aker. Their daughter's handicraft projects, which had been displayed above the fireplace, had also miraculously stayed dry.

Their car also survived the flood; the fire department had called up on Wednesday afternoon and asked all residents to move their cars to the supermarket parking lot, on higher ground. "We were still thinking, are they completely crazy? The sun was still shining," recalled Aker. The next day their neighbors' car was 40 centimeters (16 inches) underwater.

Drama a few streets away

Aker family's is safe and sound, but a tragedy happened a stone's throw away from their home: 12 people with mental disabilities were caught in their sleep by the flood and were unable to save themselves. Help came too late, and the team at the residential home are completely traumatized by the deaths.

In contrast, Aker's elderly neighbor, who lives alone, was lucky. "We couldn't reach him by phone at first, then in the night he called us: 'What's happening? I'm lying in bed and I've been woken up by the water.'" A short time later, Germany's Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) was able to rescue him with a boat.

Aker has hardly slept in the last few days, with the shock and numbness after the flood giving way to hectic activity. On Friday morning, private groups came by with thermos flasks and hot tea, while the THW provided sandwiches, cookies and water. All around the house, family, friends and colleagues are scurrying about, armed with rubber boots and shovels, including Sarah Krajewski, who is also from the area.

"It's important to just be there for your friends during these times. That helps, the feeling that everyone cares," she said. Krajewski even rounded up foreign exchange students from Jordan and Georgia to help rip out the carpet and get the kitchen halfway back to normal.

German floods leave behind trail of devastation

Politicians, insurance companies must step in

"We're definitely going to stay; the upstairs is habitable, after all," said Aker. The plan is to start gutting and rebuilding as soon as possible. But that may take time. "Even before the flood, it was hard to find tradespeople. And now, there must be at least 50 people in this street alone who need the same services."

How life continues for the Akers and their neighbors in Sinzig now depends above all on emergency aid from politicians, and the payments from insurance companies. Aker, who has been meticulously taking pictures of all the damage, has taken out natural hazard insurance and is therefore actually on the safe side.

But stories are already making the rounds in the neighborhood that the insurers want to claim force majeure and avoid the payouts. "My appeal right now is for bureaucracy not to take precedence over people's fates," said Aker.

This article has been translated from German


Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.