Several roofs have collapsed in southern Germany as a result of heavy snows, raising a debate on building safety measures. Now, new evidence shows not only buildings, but bridges, too may need a closer look.
Scraping snow has become a daily event for many Bavarians
When a flat-roofed ice rink caved in under the weight of heavy snows in Bavaria in late January, killing 15 and injuring 34 skaters out for a day of fun, it was seen as a one-off tragedy. But that was quickly followed by the collapse of a riding stable in the same area, and a few days later accumulated snow brought a corrugated tin supermarket roof crashing down. Other roofs have followed.
German troops were called in to help ease the load on Bavarian rooftops
In the past few days, teams of volunteers -- mostly firefighters, mountain rescue squads, and army recruits -- have been mobilized throughout the Bavarian Alps to shovel off snowy roofs and minimize the chance of more building cave-ins. The plan has, so far, been effective.
Thumbs down to 'building TÜV'
Inevitably, the disasters led to political debate about building safety. After a hastily called summit on the subject, federal and state building officials, as well as Germany's official safety-certification agency TÜV, ultimately decided against adopting a national system of building inspections that would mirror the current car-inspection system.
Their argument was that a "building TÜV" would create too much bureaucracy yet still not ensure perfect safety, since buildings are more individual and complicated to test than cars.
"Periodic standard building inspections will not cater to the great variety of what are often highly complex structures," said Manfred Bayerlein, managing director of TÜV South, the agency responsible for certifying safety of thousands of products and services in southern Germany.
They do cars -- but do buildings make sense?
"Quick visual assessments, simply going through checklists and setting fixed survey intervals will not improve safety in the long term," he said.
Currently, German civil law lays responsibility for building safety at the feet of the owners, and public buildings do undergo a battery of tests on everything from fire safety to adequate circulation. But despite a criminal investigation into the Bad Reichenhall rink collapse, building owners generally do not face the threat of legal damages high enough to motivate extra safety measures.
But safety will get more stringent come September, said German Building and Transportation Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee. That's when he expects to put his plan for an inspection-controls system for certain types of buildings into action.
It will be a while before anyone enters this snow-covered phone booth
"After the buildings collapsed in Bad Reichenhall and (shortly afterward, in the Polish town of) Kattowitz, we cannot just go back to business as usual," Tiefensee said in Berlin last week. "I have therefore arranged to check the buildings, making up a danger classification and setting verification criteria… We don’t want unnecessary bureaucracy, but we need more security."
Building expert and Green party politician Franziska Eichstädt-Bohlig warned against waiting too long to take action. "The clock is ticking on many buildings," she told the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper.
Risk categories, timelines
According to Tiefensee's plan, buildings will be checked for stability and statics. They also include devising risk categories to decide which types of buildings should be checked, and how often. Flat-roofed constructions, as well as poured-concrete buildings from the 1950s are thought to need most renovation.
Up to now, authorities have only gotten involved once damage is already visible.
Exactly who will oversee the building checks has not been decided. Many of those involved think the job should go to local building-oversight officials, but there is a problem: budget reductions have slashed their capacity in recent years.
Many bridges are no longer seen as safe
"This is exactly where a lot of jobs were cut in the past," Eichstädt-Bohlig said.
Meanwhile, Tiefensee seems to have another engineering-based problem on his hands -- a new study has shown many of Germany's ageing bridges made of pre-stressed concrete are in poor condition.
Some 15 percent of highway bridges and highways made of pre-stressed concrete were labeled in "critical" or "dissatisfactory" condition, an internal study by the German transport ministry showed.
The condition of 12.6 percent of the cases was "critical," and 2.4 percent were "dissatisfactory" when it came to "quality, resilience, and security" according to a report in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Bridges called 'time bomb'
While in 2001, 17.6 percent of the bridges were marked "very good," this year, just 7.1 percent were. And 31.3 percent were described as only "satisfactory."
"The bridges are a time bomb," said Horst Friedrich, an opposition FDP politician who specializes in transport issues, talking to Bild am Sonntag. "No one knows if a bridge that is called 'dissatisfactory' or 'critical' can withstand a bad truck accident," he added.
As if German infrastructure didn't have enough problems right now, forecasters are calling for warm weather later this week. Locals fear runoff from the tons of melting snow will cause widespread flooding.