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Local residents clean up debris in Germany
Local residents and volunteers were picking up the pieces after catastrophic flooding in western GermanyImage: Cristof Stache/Getty Images/AFP
CatastropheGermany

Germany floods: Officials rebuke criticism amid cleanup

July 20, 2021

Top German officials have defended their handling of the country's worst flooding in decades. Local residents in western Germany are reeling from the devastation, as cleanup efforts persist.

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With survivors facing the scale of destruction wrought by  the deadly flooding  in western Germany, the authorities have defended their response to the disaster.

So far, at least 165 people have been confirmed dead from the floodwaters. This tally includes 117 people in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, and 47 fatalities in neighboring North Rhine-Westphalia. One person is confirmed to have died in Bavaria. 

The German military has deployed around 1,000 soldiers for relief efforts in the three states most impacted by the flooding. Search and rescue operations are still ongoing. 

DW correspondent reports from hard-hit Ahrweiler

DW correspondent Benjamin Alvarez reported from Ahrweiler on Monday, one of the areas that was ravaged by the floodwaters. He described the situation as "dramatic." 

"There is still no electricity, there is still no gas, and local authorities believe this can take weeks if not months to be restored," he said. 

Alvarez said many of the Ahrweiler residents did not receive warnings from local authorities before the flooding. 

"We have talked to several people here on the ground and while some of them told us they heard an alarm from firefighters, we talked to a lot of them who told us that they did not get any alarm from local authorities, firefighters or police," Alvarez said. 

The DW correspondent said some residents instead received calls from their family members who urged them to immediately evacuate their homes. 

German leaders defend warning system

Federal and state officials have rebuked criticism that they did not do enough to warn locals in hard-hit areas of the country. 

"It would be completely inconceivable for such a catastrophe to be managed centrally from any one place. You need local knowledge," German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told reporters on Monday while visiting the Steinbachtal Dam in North Rhine-Westphalia. 

He called the criticism "cheap election rhetoric" and said "now really isn't the hour for this."

North Rhine-Westphalia's Interior Minister Herbert Reul said that while his state's handling of the flooding was not perfect, there were "no major fundamental problems" in its response to the disaster.

The German Meteorological Service (DWD) also defended its handling of the crisis and said the agency had "done what it was supposed to do."

A DWD spokesperson told public broadcaster ZDF that its warnings about the flooding to local authorities were not passed on.

Mariam Haritz, the head of the Crisis Management Unit at the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, told DW that the DWD had in fact given two alerts prior to the flooding. 

Were flood fatalities preventable?

At the same time, she said nobody expected "this amount of water could cause that incredible amount of damage."

She said officials have to operate on a "very thin line" when issuing disaster alerts.

"If you warn people of an extreme weather event and it doesn't occur exactly the way you predicted, people get angry because they might have canceled a party or a venue or whatever because of that warning. So it's a little bit like in the fairy tale of [the boy who cried wolf]. Next time you warn people, they won't listen to you," she explained.

Flood hero in Austria garners social media praise

The floods also impacted Austria, most notably the town of Hallein, which lies nears the German border. 

Alexander Eisenmann, a local from Hallein, jumped into the waters on Saturday and saved his two Turkish neighbors from the heavy current. Video footage of the rescue circulated widely on social media.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called Eisenmann and thanked him for the heroic act.

Merkel to visit affected area, as Belgium mourns victims

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to visit the flood-ravaged town of Bad Münstereifel in North Rhine-Westphalia on Tuesday, alongside state premier Armin Laschet. She previously visited the hard-hit town of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate this past weekend.

Also on Tuesday, Belgium will observe a national day of mourning for the victims and a minute of silence. Thirty-one people have been confirmed dead from the flooding in Belgium.

wd/dj (AP, AFP, dpa)

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