Germany’s federal officials are being buffeted by accusations that they failed to heed a string of warnings from scientists ahead of last week’s devastating flash floods — the worst to strike the country since 1962, when a North Sea storm surge left 315 Germans dead.
The latest floods, which impacted Germany’s prosperous Rhineland region, caught many local authorities, residents and businesses by surprise, despite the first alarm about the likelihood of floods being raised on July 10 — three days before a deluge caused the swollen tributaries of the Rhine and Meuse to break their banks.
German authorities on Sunday had confirmed 155 deaths, but they expected the death toll to rise as rescuers continued their search in wrecked buildings for hundreds of missing residents.
Both the German and Belgian governments were warned of the likelihood of flooding, say scientists with the Copernicus Emergency Management Service and the European Flood Awareness System. Belgium has confirmed 27 casualties.
Hannah Cloke, hydrology professor at Britain’s Reading University told AFP: “For so many people to die in floods in Europe in 2021 represents a monumental failure of the system.”
She added: “The sight of people driving or wading through deep flood water fills me with horror, as this is about the most dangerous thing you can do in a flood. Forecasters could see this heavy rain coming and issued alerts early in the week, and yet the warnings were not taken seriously enough and preparations were inadequate. These kinds of high-energy, sudden summer torrents of rain are exactly what we expect in our rapidly heating climate.”
As a huge rescue operation continued Sunday in the worst affected the German regions of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, chancellor Angela Merkel visited stricken areas, pledging to build back better. She held the hand of one grieving local politician and later said: “I’ve come here today to symbolize that we’re standing together in solidarity. We will fix everything one step at a time in this beautiful area. We have to act fast.”
Nonetheless Germany’s media has begun to question whether the federal government should have acted faster ahead of the storms and are focusing on the possible political repercussions of the flooding, which has left homes and businesses wrecked. Thousands of people have been left without access to electricity or clean drinking water.
The Federal Office for Citizen Protection and Disaster Assistance did issue alerts on its app about coming floods, say officials. But critics say that a very small fraction of the German population has downloaded the app on their smartphones and that a much louder warning should have been sounded to allow local communities to better prepare for the deluge of midweek rain.
The influential tabloid newspaper Bild has accused the agency of a massive failure.
“The tidal waves came in the night — and surprised hundreds of thousands of people,” the paper editorialized. It said: “The force of the water trapped them in their cellars, tore them on the run or even with their houses. More than 100 dead and countless missing people are to be mourned. Forewarnings? Sirens? Loudspeaker announcements?”
The tabloid concluded warnings were “often not available or much too late.”
Other German media outlets have pointed out that hundreds of people sought refuge in their basements, the worst place to seek sanctuary.
Hundreds of towns and villages in the western regions of Germany have been destroyed. And the images of the destruction aired by the country’s broadcasters and posted on social media sites have startled Germans.
The flooding has come just two months before federal elections, which will determine Merkel’s successor. She is stepping down after 16 years in office.
An immediate $354 million aid package is being prepared by the federal government. Officials say the cost of rebuilding will be in the billions. Rebuilding costs in 2013 after floods on the Elbe and Danube amounted to more than $9 billion.
Ruling Christian Democrat lawmakers hope a quick federal response will limit any political damage from the mounting accusations of insufficient preparedness ahead of the flooding — and they will be scrutinizing post-flood opinion polls to see if their ratings are slipping ahead of September’s federal elections.
Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrats’ electoral candidate to succeed Merkel, has added to the worries of the ruling party. His electoral campaign has not been gaffe-free and on Saturday he was forced to apologize for being seen laughing with aides in the background when accompanying President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on a tour of stricken towns.
Laschet is the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia.
He tweeted later his regrets, saying, “This was inappropriate and I’m sorry. The fate of those affected is close to our hearts, and we have heard of it in many conversations,” he wrote. Photographs of him joking with aides in the background as Steinmeier delivered a somber statement have been carried in most of Germany’s main newspapers.
Laschet’s apology has failed to placate critics. “This is all apparently a big joke,” tweeted Maximilian Reimers of the far-left Die Linke opposition party. “How could he be a chancellor?” “I’m speechless,” tweeted Lars Klingbeil, secretary general of the center-left Social Democrats, who govern in a coalition with the Christian Democrats.
Laschet, like most of Germany’s mainstream politicians, have linked the floods to climate change, but the Green Party, which has been running strongly in opinion polls, albeit with slippage in recent weeks, has been critical of the Christian Democrats’ climate action plans, saying they don’t go far enough.
This report includes information from AFP.