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Flooded Gohlis district in Dresden Copyright: Matthias Hiekel/dpa pixel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa


Sille Wünsch / als
June 7, 2013

While rivers in southern and eastern Germany have flooded regions of land and brought down power and telephone lines, mobile communication continues. People are reaching out to seek aid, as well as help those in need.


"Looking for a place to take a shower, preferably centrally located - would be great after a day in the mud. J" That's what one notice on the "Hochwasser-Hilfe-Netzwerk" (Floodwater Help Network) says.

On Twitter, one can find the hashtag #Hochwasser (Floodwaters) under the top trends. Other groups have popped up on Facebook. People in the areas affected by the floods in Germany are linking up to organize everything from transportation and buying groceries, to medical aid and exchanging information on the water levels - all via mobile communication. People are offering accommodations, or items for everyday living. They're also offering their help in cleaning up after the floods.

The images are similar to those from the years 2002, 2006 and 2010, and again they are being called the "floods of the century." Yet something has changed: information is spreading at a much faster pace than, for instance, back in 2002, when the Elbe River flooded. And the Internet, social media and mobile communication technology are responsible for that.

Television reporters and cameras may be on location at the disaster sites, but broadcasters - both public and commercial - are also using videos private individuals have uploaded onto the web. They've been recorded with cell phones, they're shaky, and the sound quality is poor. Yet the Internet is faster than an outside broadcast vehicle, and is closer to the people.

Residents transport sand bags to build a flood protection in a street flooded by the Elbe River in Dresden - Surging waters have claimed at least 11 lives and forced tens of thousands of evacuations across central Europe bore down on eastern Germany. Copyright: ROBERT MICHAEL/AFP/Getty Images
Many have pitched in to help in DresdenImage: ROBERT MICHAEL/AFP/Getty Images

Citizens as sensors

People are also increasingly using social networks in the area of emergency management. "They're new information channels that are growing in importance, especially in reaching young people. And authorities have to get used to implementing them more," Ralph Tiesler, Vice President of the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, told Deutsche Welle.

These venues also offer the chance to communicate directly with citizens, and must be expanded, he said - in all directions. On the one hand, they can be used to disseminate information among citizens during a disaster. And, "we have to be present on the Internet ourselves, also to prevent false information from spreading," Tiesler said.

On the other hand, the social networks can also facilitate getting information to disaster control managers that could help them in their work. Yet a great number of personnel are needed to weed through and analyze tweets and YouTube videos. "There's a lot of editorial work involved in that," Tiesler pointed out. He said it's difficult to adequately evaluate all of the information coming through on the current floodwater disasters in Germany. "But we can now use citizens as sensors - on-site information is usually more precise than, say, aerial images," he said. Local reports from citizens can be compared with weather, water level and damage prognoses, which can help provide aid workers with a more exact picture of the situation.

Research projects now exist which look at how one can electronically evaluate information streaming through social networks - like searching through tweets based on particular search words. But, that's all in the development stages, said Tiesler.

Images from 2002

In addition, citizens and aid workers working day and night on site at fighting back the water cannot really take advantage of the information circulating online. Wolfgang Brandt, spokesperson for Brandenberg's Crisis Management Coordination Center, sees no advantage in web-based communication. He attests to verbal communication between people: "Everyone knows each other here. People talk with each other and quickly pass on all the important information to the appropriate locations," he said.

Rescue mission in floodwaters in Passau Copyright: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand dpa/lby
Rescue mission in floodwaters in PassauImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Frank Villmow, of the control center of the German Life Saving Society (DLRG) in Lower Saxony's Bad Nenndorf, said that reports on the Internet are not always reliable. "We look at the reports and messages on the web, and sometimes, they are helpful and we can respond. But you have to determine whether or not you can trust the information," said Villmow. Images from floods in 2002 have recently been posted as part of the current floods, he pointed out. That can be confusing. "The Internet is open to everyone - and they can publish whatever they want," he said. The people working in the flooded regions don't have time to filter through all the data coming from the web and check its accuracy.

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