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Germany ponders lessons from deadly floods — as it happened

July 19, 2021

As Germany mourns after deadly floods devastated swaths of the country, the cleanup operation goes on. The situation remains tense in some areas. Follow DW for more.

Police officers and volunteers clean rubble in an area affected by floods
Police officers and volunteers clean rubble in an area affected by floodsImage: Thilo Schmuelgen/REUTERS
  • At least 165 people have been reported dead across western Germany, with many more fatalities across Europe
  • Chancellor Angela Merkel says the government will work to tackle climate change and rebuild
  • Interior Minister Horst Seehofer visited affected areas in North Rhine-Westphalia
  • The flooding has also impacted eastern Germany and Austria

These live updates are now closed. For more on the floods, click here.

Billions needed to fix highways, railroads

German authorities estimate that the damage caused by the floodwaters to traffic links amounts to almost €2 billion ($2.3 billion).

Around €1.3 billion would need to go towards fixing the railroads and rail stations, the Bild newspaper reported Tuesday citing initial estimates from the transport ministry. The floodwaters have disrupted train services in some areas. Streets and roads would also need hundreds of millions of euros in repairs.

The report says the federal government could deploy 300 temporary bridges in hard-hit areas to facilitate transportation.

Official warns rescue efforts could spread coronavirus

German authorities are concerned that rescue efforts could boost the spread of COVID-19.

"Many people are coming together in a tight space to deal with this crisis. We must be careful that managing this disaster does not become a super-spreader event," David Freichel, who works for the coronavirus communications staff of Rhineland-Palatinate's state government, told the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland (RND) outlet. 

Germany's public health body, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), reported 546 new daily infections on Monday. European countries are concerned about the impact of the more contagious delta variant, which originated in India.

Belgium to hold a day of mourning

Belgium will hold a national day of mourning on Tuesday to remember the flood victims. 

Thirty-one people in Belgium have been confirmed dead from the disaster.

Floods in Belgium

From 12:01 to 12:02 local time on Tuesday, all public transportation in Brussels will come to a standstill during a national minute of silence.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the day will be a moment for citizens "to show solidarity, closeness, and unity."

Many Ahrweiler residents say they received no warning

DW political correspondent Benjamin Alvarez spoke to residents of hard-hit Ahrweiler, and said many of them did not receive warning from 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," he said. Alvarez said some residents instead received calls from family members who told them to immediately leave their homes .

Alvarez described the current situation in Ahrweiler 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.

Nobody expected 'this incredible amount of damage'

DW spoke to Miriam Haritz, the head of the Crisis Management Unit at the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, about the recent devastating floods and Germany's disaster warning system.

She confirmed that the German Meteorological Service (DWD) issued two alerts prior to the flooding. However, she said that nobody expected that "this amount of water could cause that incredible amount of damage."

Haritz said there was a "very thin line" to operate on when issuing 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 said.

Most Germans do not see Laschet as good in a crisis

Only a quarter of Germans think that Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate hoping to replace Angela Merkel in September, fares well in a crisis, according to a recent poll commissioned by Der Spiegel magazine.

A similar share of respondents thought that the major challenger to the conservative bloc, Annalena Baerbock, candidate for the Greens, would be a good crisis manager.

The Social Democrats' candidate, and current finance minister in the coalition government, Olaf Scholz, had more support as a crisis manager, with 41% of those polled saying he would do well.

The poll was carried out between July 16 and 18, after the heavy rains and flooding first hit parts of Germany.

EU council pledges support for farmers

The EU's Agricultural and Fisheries Council declared its support for farmers in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium who had been affected by the floods. 

EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski pointed to tools and mechanisms that already exist in the Common Agricultural Policy for restoration after natural disasters.

The council said it was in contact with member states about what kind of concrete support it could provide, including advance payments and exemptions of certain duties.

Social media celebrates Austrian flood hero

Alexander Eisenmann, a local from the Austrian town of Hallein that was hit with floods on Saturday, has been called a hero after jumping into a heavy current to save his two Turkish neighbors.

A video of his bravery continued to spread on Monday after Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called him to express his gratitude.

Salih Karaarslan had been struggling to pull his wife Ayse out of the water when Eisenmann came to their rescue. The three were dragged into a courtyard by the water where they were finally able to get to their feet.

Charity to pay out €1.5 million to most affected

German charity Caritas said on Monday that it would distribute aid totaling €1.5 million ($1.7 million) immediately, praising people's willingness to donate.

The aid will be distributed to those most in need following the flooding disaster, the organization said. It will be given either in cash, psychological counseling or assistance with applying for government support.

The charitable association said it had been "overwhelmed" by the generosity of people throughout Germany.

Police issue warning against online scammers

Police in Bonn and Cologne have warned people to be wary of online scammers trying to take advantage of people in the wake of the disaster.

A police statement gave several examples of people who had fallen victim to scams, such as paying upfront for construction dryers before realizing that the sellers were not reachable by phone.

In a separate case, scammers used the photo of a damaged building to set up a donation page. The statement added that the perpetrators often set up fake websites from other countries, making the removal of such websites a long and arduous process.

Hundreds of soldiers support relief operations

The German Defense Ministry said that around 1,000 soldiers had been deployed in some 20 towns and localities in the three states most affected by the recent flooding.

More than half, some 550, were in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, with around 300 and 100 deployed in Rhineland-Palatinate and Bavaria respectively.

While some were helping with clearing away debris and mud, other members of the Bundeswehr were involved in the regular transporting of goods such as water and medicine to the affected regions by helicopter.

Piles of wreckage left in flood-hit town

DW correspondent Benjamin Alvarez shared a video on Twitter showing the scenes after the initial stages of the clean-up in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler that was hit particularly badly by Saturday's flooding.

The video shows piles of debris left by the flood, laid out along the mud-covered street. 

Kramp-Karrenbauer pays tribute to victims 

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer commemorated the victims of the floods and praised the emergency efforts of the Bundeswehr soldiers. 

"We think of those who have lost their lives, those who have lost loved ones [and] those who are left without possessions. But we also think of those who have helped and are still helping in the last days," Kramp-Karrenbauer said.

Seehofer rebuffs flood criticism

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer hit out at criticism that the federal government had not done enough to warn locals in the flood-hit areas of the country.

The former Bavarian premier said flood warnings were up to local authorities. "It would be completely inconceivable for such a catastrophe to be managed centrally from any one place. You need local knowledge," he told journalists during a visit to the Steinbach Reservoir in western Germany.

"I have to say that some of the things I’m hearing now are cheap election rhetoric,” Seehofer said at the site, where authorities say they no longer fear a dam breach. "Now really isn’t the hour for this."

Were flood fatalities preventable?

Flood death toll climbs to 165

The death toll from Germany's worst floods in living memory rose to 165 on Monday, authorities said.

Emergency services are continuing to search decimated towns in the west of the country for the dozens of people still missing.

A deluge of rain fell over western Germany over two days last week, sending torrents of water rushing down streets, sweeping away trees, cars and sheds, and destroying swathes of housing. 

German cabinet set to approve €400m in flood aid

Senior German government sources have told the DPA news agency that the cabinet will approve a €400 million ($470 million) aid package for the flood-hit regions of the country.

The emergency funding and a longer-term reconstruction program is expected to be signed off later on Wednesday, DPA reports.

Fears over Cologne dam subside

Cologne authorities say the Steinbach Dam is no longer a risk to nearby towns and villages.

"A dam breach is now no longer to be feared," the municipal government said in a statement. Officials are set to organize "an orderly return" of residents to Swisttal and Rheinbach, who had been evacuated for safety reasons.

The heavy rains had led to water overflowing the top of the dam close to the town of Euskirchen.

Germany floods: Residents clean up aftermath

Greens' choice warns of more extreme events

Annalena Baerbock, the Greens' candidate for chancellor in September's election, has told ARD's Morgenmagazin that climate change will spark more natural disasters like the recent floods.

"These extreme weather events will increase," she told the German broadcaster.

Baerbock said the flooding highlighted the need to bring in climate protection measures more quickly.

If she became chancellor, Baerbock said she would massively expand wind power and other renewable energies.

Water collects through narrow valleys

At the center of the floods is the Eifel region, a low mountain range that stretches across eastern Belgium and western Germany, bordering the Rhine and Mosel rivers. In Germany, the Eifel lies in both federal states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate.

Infografik Karte Überschwemmungen im Westen Deutschlands EN

The area is home to usually gentle, picturesque rivers that run through the towns. These are the rivers that burst their banks, flooding and laying to waste entire villages.

Heavy rain in such mountainous terrain is particularly dangerous because water collects in the valleys instead of spreading evenly across other surfaces. This is what happened in the Ahr region, a particularly narrow valley, where a sudden rise in water levels would leave residents with little chance to escape the flood.

The small towns affected in the Eifel area benefit mainly from tourist economic activity, which had slowed down significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The floods are likely to be a terrible setback for the region.

Altenahr mayor fears for drinking water supplies.

The mayor of Altenahr in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate fears that drinking water supplies could be limited for a long time after the devastating floods.

"It looks as if the infrastructure has been so badly damaged that there may be no drinking water in some places for weeks or even months," Cornelia Weigand told the Bild newspaper.

Weigand, who is an independent, said emergency water supplies would be required until the repairs were complete.

She also questioned whether all residents would return once the water had subsided. "Who's going to move back there where a flood of the century is going to be exceeded by a factor of three?"

German flood death toll rises further

The number of people to have died in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate from the flooding has risen to 117, Koblenz police said on Monday.

Authorities had reported the previous day that 112 people had lost their lives, with nearly 750 people injured.

Floods are a 'wake-up call' on climate, says CSU's Söder

Bavarian premier Markus Söder has said that Germany needs to speed up its fight against climate change.

The leader of the Christian Social Union, the sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU, was speaking to the broadcaster ARD.

"After all, this was a wake-up call," he said.

Söder said that he would bring forward new legislation to tackle the problem, which was already planned before the recent flooding.

Merkel vows to 'counteract this natural disaster'

Some areas of Bavaria have also been hit by high water levels, particularly in the Berchtesgaden area close to the border with Austria.

Dozens of people have been evacuated from their homes there.

Civil protection chief rejects criticism of warning systems

The head of Germany's federal office for civil protection and disaster assistance, Armin Schuster, has rejected criticism that more needs to be done to improve the country's warning system for extreme weather.

"The warning infrastructure has not been our problem, but how authorities and the population react sensitively to these to these warnings," Schuster told Deutschlandfunk radio on Monday.

He said the organization, known by its German acronym BBK, issued 150 such warnings between Wednesday and Saturday.

Floods are result of climate 'procrastination'

German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, a Social Democrat (SPD) lawmaker, said the recent floods are "the consequences of procrastination and hesitation" in fighting climate change.

She vowed that if the SPD won September's election, the center-left party would bring in tougher policies to help cut emissions.

Schulze pointed to expanding renewable energy sources, including wind and solar plants, adding that a stricter speed limit on Germany's autobahn network was also necessary.

"It immediately leads to lower CO2 emissions and costs us nothing," she said in an interview with RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland.

Germany floods

State minister denies 'fundamental problems'

North Rhine-Westphalia's Interior Minister Herbert Reul, a CDU lawmaker, said the state needed to improve how it responds to major disasters, but he rejected claims that its approach was fundamentally flawed.

"Not everything can have worked 100% as it should have," Reul told Bild newspaper, saying that if it had, there should not have been any deaths.

But he added that the state's disaster response policy had "no major fundamental problems", while admitting there was "probably still work to be done" on coordinating relief efforts.

Aerial view of the flooding

Before and after footage of the Ahr valley show just how much water was carried by the small river, spilling into the entire town and the dramatic devastation that followed.

The before and after shots show the extent of the flooding in Altenburg in Altenahr
The before and after shots show the extent of the flooding in Altenburg in Altenahr

For more before and after shots, click here.

Disaster not over yet, warns CDU's Laschet

Armin Laschet, the Christian Democratic candidate for this year's general election, has warned that the rebuilding from the damage caused by the floods "will take months, even years."

The state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia said "the disaster is not over yet" because thousands of homes across the flood-hit region are without power or running water.

He added that all levels of government were moving "as quickly as possible" to disburse aid to the victims of the extreme weather.

Police contact 700 missing persons

Cologne police said in a statement on Sunday that they had managed to reach 700 people who had been declared missing. There are now just 150 people who they have not yet been able to get hold of in the regions around Cologne and Bonn.

Weather agency defends itself

A spokesperson for the German Meteorological Service (DWD) defended its role saying the agency had "done what it was supposed to do."

The DWD warned local authorities of the expected weather pattern, but often these messages were not passed on, the spokesperson told German broadcaster ZDF.

In Germany, local districts are responsible for deciding relevant measures, not the DWD. 

German geoscience expert Kai Schröter