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German Troops Battle Raging Flood Waters

August 20, 2002

Some 19,000 soldiers are helping out in Germany's flood-stricken areas, and may stay there for months to come. Defense Minister Struck has promised the states it will "not cost them a penny".

A German soldier lends a helping hand in DresdenImage: AP

Flood levels are still rising in some areas, and so too are the costs of the clean up which follows some of the worst floods in Germany yet.

One of the most striking proposals in the federal government’s aid package, disclosed on Monday, is the enlisting of 5,000 jobless people. In addition, some 5,000 German soldiers will be on standby to assist the already 19,000 German troops toiling away in Germany’s flooded areas.

Largest emergency deployment yet

“It is the largest emergency deployment in the history of the Bundeswehr”, German Defence Minister Peter Struck said on Monday. “Everything that we are experiencing and doing right now is far from what the Bundeswehr has experienced in similar cases”.

Indeed, the Bundeswehr is operating both on ground, water and in the air, watching over flooded areas in reconnaissance planes, helping villagers pile sandbags on breaking dikes or assisting in the evacuation of thousands of inhabitants. It is the German Bundeswehr’s largest operation within the country’s borders since the end of WWII.

No costs for states and communes

Presently, all soldiers, whether young recruits or experienced officers, are working in 12-hour shifts. Apart from heavy military equipment and field kitchens, the Bundeswehr has deployed 40 helicopters and eight transport planes to flood-stricken areas in Germany.

German troops are stationed at over 30 locations, the majority in Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg. They are now slowly moving up farther north, following the surging waters of the river Elbe on their way to Hamburg and the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.

According to Defense Minister Struck, the situation for Germany’s soldiers is a shocking one, to be remembered: “They know they are in the middle of an emergency which Germany has not yet experienced before. When they fly in a helicopter, and see the 4 kilometer wide surface of the river, the original river bed is barely discernible. And when they are on the ground, standing in the sunlight, all they see is water, water which is flowing, but is at the same time rising. It is a creeping danger, one that one only realises when one asks what the water level was one hour ago.”

Defense budget insufficient

German troops may find themselves involved in the clean-up of flood-stricken areas for months to come.

How long the operation will take and what it will cost, however, is still not clear. On Monday, Struck conceded the designated defense budget of 24,4 million euros for the next 3 years would clearly not be sufficient.

But Struck has promised that both towns and communes will not have to pay a cent for the help of the Bundeswehr: “In this situation, money does not play a role. We will not send a bill to neither the states nor the communities or any private person,” he said.

This may well mean a larger defense budget after all, against previous pledges made by the federal government not to increase its current defense budget.