Germany's flood disaster one year on
Julia Heinrichs has tears in her eyes as she listens to her 10-year-old daughter recall events on the night of the flood: "There was dark water everywhere. And now, whenever it rains, I'm afraid. Then all the memories always come back," the girl says.
Mother and daughter are sitting on chairs on the gravel in front of their home in the village of Schuld in the Ahr Valley. It was here that the waters rose suddenly on the night of July 14-15 and completely flooded the first floor of Heinrichs' house. Julia managed to drag herself, her daughter, and her daughter's cousins onto the roof.
A lot has happened since then. First, they moved in with friends a few towns away. But since May, the 31-year-old mother has been back in her old house again, together with her daughter and her father. She says she renovated almost everything by herself, using screed, laminate, and plasterboard: "I really learned to do many new things last year," she says. The damage to the house was estimated at €175,000 ($175,500), but so far she has received little assistance from public coffers. "It should have all been totally unbureaucratic, but it's not," she says.
Unbureaucratic — that's a word that makes people here in the Ahr Valley just laugh wearily. One year after the disaster struck, claiming the lives of 180 people, and destroying thousands of homes, many feel abandoned to their misfortune. The picturesque town of Ahrweiler, once the tourist hotspot of the Ahr Valley, has now been cleared of mud and debris, but many houses and stores still stand empty.
One of them is the French restaurant "Crep'chen," which used to be run by Charly Schafgans-Gülker. He opens the door and points to the bare concrete floor. "This is where the counter was, with a state-of-the-art French coffee machine. Now it's all gone." For more than 13 years, he ran this restaurant in the town center until the water destroyed everything within its walls.
At first, he was optimistic that he would be able to reopen. He and his landlord applied for government aid and were hoping to be able to renovate everything. But there has been little progress.
Meanwhile, the 71-year-old has given up and knows that the "Crep'chen" will not reopen. He still has €20,000 in debts to pay off, which will be hard to manage on his small pension.
Katharina Kläsgen knows these stories of hardship all too well. She works for the ISB bank in Rhineland-Palatinate and her job is to help the flood victims with their applications for assistance and investment. "This application procedure is much simpler than those for financial assistance in the COVID-19 pandemic," she admits. But still, applicants need to provide evidence and experts' estimates when they make their claims. That's necessary "because a lot of money is also at stake," she says.
The 30-year-old, who took time off from her job to work in the Ahr Valley, does the math: If a family that had no insurance has lost all its household goods, it can receive support worth €28,500 through the ISB. If that is not enough, it can apply for additional help from Catholic and Protestant churches' aid organizations such as the Maltesers or the Diakonie. That money is not a loan and, therefore, does not have to be repaid.
Shortly after the floods, the two chambers of the federal parliament, the Bundestag and Bundesrat, launched a special fund of €30 billion to help local authorities and private households with reconstruction.
Much has been approved, little has been paid
But many flood victims, especially the elderly, have struggled with the online-only application process. A pensioner tells Katharina Kläsgen that his mobile home was destroyed, he wants to apply for assistance, but he doesn't have a computer.
Last year, the ISB bank approved 90% of all applications for financial assistance. That means 10,000 applicants were to receive a total amount of almost €350 million. In addition, businesses were granted €200 million. However, only a small part of the money has actually landed in the applicants' accounts. Only an initial 20% of the approved sum is paid out quickly and unbureaucratically, after that recipients have to show proof and detail their expenditures.
This is exactly where Julia Heinrichs and her family stand. They received emergency aid shortly after the flood, then the first 20% of the assistance the ISB found them to be entitled to. Now, they need craftsmen and surveyors to provide them with invoices for building materials and estimates for the work that still has to be done. But skilled workers are hard to come by in the Ahr region at the moment.
It is hard to muster the energy for hunting around for workers, and doing the paperwork to get financial assistance, says Heinrichs. Like most people in the Ahr Valley, she is traumatized and finds it hard to cope. Last year after the floods, she says, the adrenaline drove her. But one year on, she finds herself overwhelmed by memories and emotions: "In the evening, I lie in bed, the images come back, and the tears too," she says.
Still, she doesn't want to give up. She just got her truck driver's license: "It's always been my dream to haul gravel and rubble." That dream has taken on a whole new meaning now.
This article was originally written in German.
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