German town of Wittenberge fights floods | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.06.2013
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German town of Wittenberge fights floods

It is a stark contrast: Pictures of people in bright sunlight filling sandbags while the Elbe flows over its banks. It's partly thanks to the sun that so many volunteers have come to help, says Wittenberge's mayor.

It's a nice, early-summer day in Wittenberge in the north of the state of Brandenburg. The sun is shining down on the quiet town of 17,000 people that promotes its image of being the gate to the Elbe River valley. Without the fire fighters, police and the German Technical Relief Agency (THW) passing through, it could pass for a normal day in Wittenberge.

But as you get closer and closer to the Elbe River, the sandbags pile up higher and higher. Police have blocked off nearly all access to the river - leaving just one road open to a former industrial site where volunteers are helping fill sandbags. City officials said they hope to fill some 140,000 sandbags per day to reinforce dikes along the course of the river.

New record high

"We coordinate filling the sandbags and then send them off to where they are needed," said Rainer Wöhlert, who is responsible for supervising this area's operation.

Despite the fact that the Elbe's record high of more than 7.70 meters (25 feet) has slowly started to fall the city is not out of danger yet. "We need to continue filling sandbags in order to reinforce protection measures quickly," Wöhlert said.

Sandbags in Wittenberge (photo: DW / A:Drechsel)

Sandbags are piled up in front of Wittenberge's houses

That's why many helping hands continue to push parts of drain pipes into a pile of sand - a technique that lets them fill the bags much faster than with a shovel, a volunteer explained.

"The bags weigh about 25 kilograms (55 pounds)," the gray-haired man said while he holds a bag and second helper scoops in the sand. A wet sandbag can easily weigh 50 kilograms, both men said.

It's hard, physical labor and while temperatures are pleasant in the morning, the sun beats down on volunteers at the industrial site later in the day. But volunteers are still willing to lend a hand to help protect the city from a flood.

Even school classes come here by bus. In addition to THW vehicles, private companies have sent transporters as well to get the filled sandbags to the dikes. But only professional aides are allowed to deliver the bags, because it's too risky for volunteers who might panic if the dam were to break. People checking the dikes have to be professionally trained as well. They are the ones deciding on where the sandbags are needed.

Merkel visited Wittenberge's headquarters

A special flood operations center in the city coordinates flood protection measures: Getting sand and sandbags, organizing transport and deciding on where to put them. The unit in Wittenberge is based at the volunteer fire company's building. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the headquarters on Monday (10.06.2013).

Volunteers like Stephan Pfeiffer, an officer in the German military, register to help at the operations center. He and 15 other crew members on the U31 submarine came from the Baltic Sea to Brandenburg and got right to work after the four-hour trip.

"It goes without saying to help when someone is in need," he said. "The Bundeswehr provided us with equipment and gave us two trucks. That's how we can transport sandbags to dikes to support them."

Pfeiffer said he expects to stay on for another week. It's the high level of the river and the flood's duration that make a prolonged operation likely.

Sandbags in Wittenberge (photo: DW / A. Drechsel)

Volunteers help filling sandbags - they filled some 165,000 in one day

These two factors also worry Wittenberge's mayor, Oliver Hermann. The record high of 2002's "flood of the century" was surpassed by more than half a meter, said Hermann.

"Now it all depends on timing; that it doesn't take too long, because that would be a lot of pressure on the dikes," he said. "It also depends on the dike defense mechanisms - that weak points get eliminated fast."

Targeting weak points

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Germany battles floods along the Elbe

All in all, the dikes are in decent condition, but there are weak points, Hermann said. Wittenberge was in the process of building higher dikes of almost eight meters when the flood hit. They had to build a makeshift dike instead. If that dike were to break, it's not only the old parts of Wittenberge that would be flooded, the mayor said. Eventually it would reach all of Wittenberge - that's why it's so important that everyone lends a hand, he added.

"We are positively surprised by the readiness to help others," Hermann said, adding that it was difficult to get people out to help in previous floods because they happened during the winter. More people were willing to help in sunshine, according to the mayor. That's why he appreciates the nice weather in Brandeburg's north and hopes it will stay on for another couple of days.

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