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Bavaria's tourist region begins cleanup

July 20, 2021

Although Bavaria was better prepared for extreme flooding than communities in the west of Germany, that is of little comfort to those whose homes have been destroyed. Elliot Douglas reports from the scene.

Water flowing into and past homes in Berchtesgadener Land, Bavaria
Berchtesgadener Land in Bavaria came through flooding in much better shape than other regions of GermanyImage: Kilian Pfeiffer/picture alliance/dpa

Barely six months ago, 21-year-old Anna Berreiter was winning a silver medal in sled racing for her native Germany at the World Luge Championships on the track by the Königssee in Bavaria. She knows it like the back of her hand; she lives barely a few kilometers away.

Now she assesses that same track grimly — a track that has been heavily damaged by devastating floods over the weekend.

"This is where I learned how to luge," she says, pointing to a starting point near the very top. It is now reduced to rubble.

A resident and two German soldiers survey storm damage at the Königssee bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton track
The world-famous luge and bobsled track at Königssee has sustained serious damage in the stormImage: Peter Kneffel/dpa/picture alliance

The world-famous winter sports venue is nestled right up against the Austrian border. Despite its high elevation, it was badly affected when heavy rains caused a stream higher in the mountains to overflow, explains Fabian Hopf from the Munich branch of the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), an organization staffed mainly by volunteers. He and his team managed to get the stream back on course, but not before the luge track was overcome by the torrent.

Now, they are leading the cleanup operation at the track, where mounds of wreckage need to be removed and taken down the side of the mountain. Every few minutes, a digger filled with fresh debris rumbles past.

While Hopf is talking, a couple hiking in lycra and a woman from the local rock climbing organization come up the hill to assess the damage.

"We have been really held back by tourists and visitors coming up here and asking what was going on," Hopf says.

Among the visitors on Sunday were Bavarian Premier Markus Söder and German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz — both of whom pledged financial aid for the area.

A map indicating the location of Berchtesgadener Land District

'Everyone helps everyone'

It is no wonder tourists love it here. The Berchtesgadener Land in Upper Bavaria is home to breathtaking mountains and beautiful lakes. It is beloved by mountain bikers and hikers in the summer, and winter sports fans in the winter.

St. Bartholomae church at Königssee in the Berchtesgadener Land
Königssee in the Berchtesgadener Land in happier (and colder) timesImage: picture alliance/blickwinkel

The alarm was first sounded here on Friday before heavy rainfalls caused rivers to burst their banks on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.

But unlike areas of the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate in the west of Germany where whole villages have been largely destroyed and more than 160 people have lost their lives, this area is used to heavy flooding. The Königssee at the bottom of the valley is protected by an enormous dam that, despite extremely high water, managed to hold tight.

In the town of Berchtesgaden further down the valley, local resident Marion says she feels lucky that the house she shares with her partner was spared, and thinks that without the dam, the whole valley would have flooded.

"At the weekend all we could think was: should we evacuate?" she recalls. "I was in tears." All in all, around 160 households evacuated over the weekend, but most returned on Monday once the situation had eased somewhat.

She ended up staying and her house was spared damage, despite the gentle brook by her garden turning into a raging river. "There didn't used to be a sandbank there," she points out. Her house is insured against flood damage, but she wonders how many in the area are not, given how expensive it can be.

"But the best thing here — everyone helps everyone," she adds. Like at regions in the west, the hard-hit towns here have been reliant on volunteers in the local fire services, with the THW and local residents all pitching in.

More cleanup needed

This solidarity will be badly needed in the coming days as the water subsides and cleanup operations continue. Authorities say that damage could run into the billions of euros.

The neighboring towns of Schönau, Bischofswiesen and Berchtesgaden were particularly affected. In Schönau, at least three houses are now completely uninhabitable, with residents rushing to clear out the mud and debris that have filled the lower floors, destroying personal belongings.

And on the main road into Berchtesgaden, a large part of the tarmac has been destroyed by the river. Standing at the side of the concrete in the July sun with spectacular mountains on all sides, it is easy to forget that barely 48 hours ago a raging torrent caused this damage.

A destroyed road in Bavaria with mountains visible in the distance
The Berchtesgadener Land in Bavaria is a popular tourist destinationImage: Elliot Douglas/DW

The scene seems almost idyllic, especially as holidaymaking cyclists and hikers enjoy the last hours of sunlight, making their way past with only an interested glance at the damage. Local residents like Marion and Anna may be more inclined to hope that, as premier Söder put it, the catastrophe will be a "wake-up call" for the damage extreme weather exacerbated by climate change can do.

Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH Elliot Douglas
Elliot Douglas Elliot Douglas is a video, audio and online journalist based in Berlin.