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German flood victims traumatized as climate change looms

September 7, 2021

Angela Merkel and high-level politicians have again visited flood-damaged areas in western Germany amid the election campaign. But locals are growing despondent, and many don't even know if they will be able to rebuild.

Residents of Altenburg, Germany surveying flood damage
Image: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

Four spray-painted crosses decide your future in the small town of Altenburg in western Germany's Ahr Valley. Badly hit by the July floods, those marks now determine which homes are so badly damaged that they have to be demolished. Excavators have already razed more than 10 houses with another 20 marked with the crosses. That's a lot for a village where just 500 people lived before the flood.

Some owners want to delay demolition. "Who knows if you'll get a new building permit," says one village resident. With the climate crisis gaining speed, it might not be allowed to build so close to the river. There have always been floods in the Ahr Valley. But never before was the water level so high that only the roofs were visible.

A side-by-side aerial comparison of Altenburg, Germany before and during July 2021 flooding
The village of Altenburg in Germany's Ahr Valley before and during the floods of July 2021

'Our neighbors are dead'

Some 95% of the village has been badly damaged or destroyed, including the retirement home, the elementary school and the athletic hall. Mud and debris have largely been cleared away, but infrastructure is in tatters. Water and power lines as well as telecommunications are all nonfunctional. Drinking water now comes from plastic tanks. Electricity has been restored to some streets and is urgently needed to power machines that dry out gutted houses.

It is not easy to talk to locals. Many are traumatized by what they have experienced. "Our neighbors are dead," says one woman, staring blankly at the ruins next door. She doesn't want to say more and just shakes her lowered head. "Here in front of the house I used to lie in the grass with my son and look up at the sky," says the man at her side, looking down at the now brown ground. "This was all so beautifully planted and idyllic," he says, pointing to the wooded and vine-covered hills that frame the valley. Then the two turn and walk away without a parting word.

A flood-devastated street in Altenahr, Germany with damaged homes and remnants of demolished structures
Six homes along this stretch of road have already been razed, with many more nearby slated for demolitionImage: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

Flood victims fear being forgotten

A group of Altenburg residents standing on a street corner in front of a field of rubble is more talkative. The people are waiting near their destroyed homes for a visit from Chancellor Angela Merkel and Rhineland-Palatinate State Premier Malu Dreyer, who wanted to get a picture with the cleanup efforts. Not everyone welcomes the visit. Merkel will be leaving office soon, they say, and won't be able to help them anymore.

One woman sees things differently. "The visit brings us some attention," says Annika Gemein. "We must not be forgotten."

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The 40-year-old stands with her sister Julia in front of what the flood left of their mother's house. A bathtub can be seen through an open wall, filled to the brim with mud. As the water rose, Annika first brought her 64-year-old mother to her home. But the floods came there too. The family retreated with the three small children to a hillside behind the house. They stayed there for a night before a helicopter was able to pick them up and fly them out.

Insurance contracts to be reviewed

Annika and Julia want to talk to the chancellor. "We need an assurance that no matter how far away from the Ahr River the houses are, we will be able to continue to insure ourselves against flooding here." She said the insurance company told them that the policies would continue for now, but only for one to two years. Then the situation will be reassessed. 

"That hangs over us like the sword of Damocles," says Gemein. "If the insurance company says we no longer insure the Ahr Valley, then reconstruction is pointless." Even if only the basement or first floor were flooded, she says, we can't afford to pay that out of pocket.

Nach Flutkatastrophe im Ahrtal | Besuch Kanzlerin Merkel
Chancellor Merkel (pointing) and State Premier Malu Dreyer (foreground, left) again visited the devatated area in recent daysImage: Markus Schreiber/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Climate crisis brings more extreme weather 

Like almost all Altenburg residents, the two sisters would like to return to their village. "Our family has been here for generations; we have brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews here. This is our home and we would lose more than just the village if we moved away," Julia says. But it is not easy for the sisters to believe in a bright future. "After all, the scientists say this can happen again and again."

The children are still scared. Of rain, streams, rivers. "My five-year-old twins often ask at night 'will the flood come while I sleep?'," says Gemein, whose family is now living with her in-laws. But they are scared of the possibility of going home again as well, to a place where the children went through a terrifying ordeal as they escaped the rising waters and threatening sounds. "The worst were the gas tanks hissing through the water."

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A long road to overcoming trauma

The inner turmoil after such life-shattering events cannot be healed overnight. Psychologists say that a lot is pushed aside in the first four weeks after a disaster. People focus on the clean-up work and the desire to clear the devastation as quickly as possible. But then comes what is known as the "valley of tears" in psychology; the point when people realize more fully what they have lost. Reconstruction takes longer than expected and it becomes clear just how long it will take before something like normality can be restored.

"I always wrestle with myself whether I should tell the children that this will never happen again," says Gemein, who needed weeks to get an appointment with a child psychologist. In a few days they will be able to talk about it all for the first time. "We will leave early when the next flood is expected. I would prefer to spend two nights with friends or in a hotel," she says. "I definitely won't wait again to see if water will pour into my house. I can't prevent it anyway."

A mud-filled bathroom in a flooded house in Altenburg, Germany
Cleanup has been a daunting task for Altenburg's residentsImage: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

Merkel's visit greeted with apathy

During the conversation, Annika kept glancing at her cell phone. Her husband texted her that he had seen the chancellor and the state premier and they were on their way into town. Indeed, at some point Merkel and Dreyer turn the corner amid a throng of security guards and journalists. But then cars pulled up and the politicians drove away, passing Gemein, her sister and the other Altenburgers standing in front of the wreckage Merkel and Dreyer were supposed to inspect.

There is no sign of disappointment among those who remain behind. Only indifference. Some turn around and go back to their houses. They continue to clean up, sweep, fill out applications for aid payments and think about how life is supposed to continue.

A house in Altenahr, Germany after July 2021 flooding
'Let it stand!': Many residents do not want their homes to be torn downImage: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

Is it safe to live near the river?

Every day emotion and reason fight over whether to stay in Altenburg. Very few have made a final decision. "As a rule, the young families have taken out a mortgage that is far from being paid off," says Gemein. "Who should we sell our land to if it is no longer possible to live here safely?"

Dreyer understands the concerns. "It doesn't mean that you can't live there anymore, but we will have different zones with requirements for flood protection," Dreyer told residents after visiting Altenburg. "You have to equip the houses differently. You have to protect them better."

But what this means in practice must now be determined by appraisers and experts, and then politicians must issue instructions, which will be relevant for insurance claims. Gemein's sister Julia's house, for instance, was built on stilts, and was ripped away along with the foundation slab when the floods hit. Julia wants the new house to have a solid foundation. But, she says as her eyes well up with tears, the insurance company refuses to pay for it, saying that only what has been destroyed is replaced. 

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.