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Germany's flood-hit regions brace for winter

October 9, 2021

Rebuilding efforts are progressing slowly in western Germany. The cold weather is likely to make the work even harder.

Hotel destroyed by the flood
Three months after the devastating floods, rebuilding has only just begunImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

The climate crisis in my living room

Come nighttime, when Bernd Hülkenberg finishes his flood clean-up work, he can see only a few lights on in the houses on the other side of the Ahr River — just a stone's throw from its banks. Many people have still not returned to the area some three months since catastrophic floods swept away lives and livelihoods.

"They're all gone. It's deadly quiet here at night," he said. "The silence is terrifying."

Everyone has a flood story to tell from this town, Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, which the river once flowed harmlessly through. Hülkenberg, an amateur musician, recalls how he was listening to classical music in his basement when he heard a roar. He opened the door and was suddenly up to his neck in water.

With the power out, he raced up the stairs in the dark. The water rose quickly behind him, and the ground floor was submerged within minutes. Hülkenberg made it to the next floor, but his beloved dog did not.

"There was nothing worse than not being able to save my dog," he said. "I tried reaching for her in the water, but I couldn't see anything in the dark."

Bernd Hülkenberg standing in what is left of his house
Bernd Hülkenberg does not want to leave the house in which he has lived for 32 yearsImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

Still without hot water

Hülkenberg is back in his house now. A microwave, coffee machine and small refrigerator were donated to him. Every day he works to remove the mold from the walls, and every day more builds up.

After more than 32 years in the town's Bachem district, Hülkenberg would rather shower without hot water — which he has done for three months — than leave. He's been told hot water may be restored by the beginning of next year.

He has an electric heater, like everyone else in the area, which means he has to be careful how much he uses.

"You can't overload the circuitry. If 20 people turn on their heaters at once, it'll blow a fuse. The winter will be bad," he said. "My goal is to have a sofa to sit on in my renovated living room in a year."

Infographic showing the flood-hit regions in Western Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands
The July floods devastated parts of western Germany and neighboring countries

The floods here inundated three streets. That makes for 100 households. Two people were killed. Those living higher up from the river, such as Ulrich Stieber, were the luckier ones. His house may be on higher ground, but on the night of the floods, he was not. Stieber nearly lost his life saving a friend's parents who lived below.

The floodwaters carried him for more than a kilometer. He grabbed a lamppost with what strength he had left as trees and other debris rushed by. Even for a nearby rescue boat, it was too dangerous to help. He was swept further and saved by a pump at a gas station, which he clung to all through the night.

Stieber has worked to get his life back. The disaster has brought Bachem's 1,300 residents closer together. Like many of the victims, Stieber has trouble sleeping and needs counseling.

Ulrich Stieber standing by the Ahr River, which is now small again
Ulrich Stieber was swept away by the water and finds himself still traumatizedImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

Volunteers still needed

Most volunteer workers find themselves at the central shelter in Grafschaft, a nearby municipality. Thomas Pütz, a medical devices supplier from the area, has come to oversee the work and has attracted a lot of attention — both from international media and Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who recently paid a visit. Like many people here, Pütz is both victim and helper; he lost his business to the floods.

"We're not only bringing helpers to the flood zone with our buses, but we organize fixed addresses, tasks and pick-up points," Pütz said.

There were 3,000 daily volunteers at one time, he said, including those who canceled their vacations or took a leave of absence from their jobs to help. But those numbers are dwindling as the flood fades from memory and other topics, such as Afghanistan or the election, get more attention. Now, just 600 people might turn up on a weekend to help out.

A smiling Thomas Pütz standing by the flood rescue meeting point
Thomas Pütz has been organizing volunteer helpersImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

"Media coverage suggests everything in the Ahr Valley is almost back to normal," Pütz said. "But that is hardly the case."

Weather is also an issue. Pütz speaks to a meteorologist every morning to get the day's forecast for the area, including anticipated rainfall. He's worried about the coming cold.

"It will stay mild until the end of October, giving us a chance to dry things out long term. But that ends once temperatures drop below freezing,” he said. "We have to get as much done as possible before the cold and wet set in. That's why we need every helping hand."

Professional help

Technisches Hilfswerk (THW), a civil protection organization overseen by the German government, is on the ground to repair critical infrastructure. The constant presence of their dark-blue trucks is "something we'd more likely see in a war zone,” said THW spokesperson Stefan Seitz.

Infrastructure is secondary to saving lives and property. THW's workers are kept busy pumping out water to repair a bridge. They've also set up 21 temporary bridges, taking the place of the dozens that were lost to the floods.

"The plan is to get normal bridges here within the next two years,” Seitz said.

Myriam Kemp smiling
Myriam Kemp helps flood victims apply for compensationImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

Federal and state governments have set up a €30 billion ($34.7 billion) fund to help flood victims. Getting some of that money requires correctly filling out a form. Those who don't, or can't, hope for help from people like Myriam Kemp. This German Red Cross worker offers consulting sessions called "prospects after the flood."

"There are still a lot of people who don't know which funds to apply for. And others can't tackle the bureaucratic monster alone," she said. "Many people are uncomfortable asking for help. They only do when they are really desperate."

Kemp said she focuses mostly on immigrants and older people, who may struggle with language or technology. She also connects people with counseling if she senses that they may be suffering from trauma.

"This is really just the beginning, and we don't know what's still to come," she said.

This article has been translated from German.

Rebuilding in the Ahr valley

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.