A thick, dark blue stripe runs across one of the flood maps of Erftstadt – subcatchment Erft, map sheet B002 – in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The strip marks a section of Federal Road 265, and its color means that, in the event of a flood, it faces the greatest level of danger, with water potentially reaching up to 4 meters (around 13 feet) or higher. It means the road could become a deathtrap.
In other words, one could have known. Or rather, one should have known.
At the beginning of last week, the German Meteorological Service (DWD) issued a warning about severe storms. On Wednesday, Erftstadt’s basements filled up, the fire department was operating without pause and it kept raining in the early hours of Thursday. But nobody in the small town thought of closing the road to traffic. By Thursday morning, though, it was too late.
The masses of water from the Erft River flooded the road, which runs below the stream in a depression. Cars, including trucks, were suddenly surrounded by water, which quickly rose a meter. The power of the water pushed the vehicles, which weighed tons, like toys. Everyone in the vehicles was able to save themselves, perhaps literally at the last second. Nobody died, but that was due to insane luck.
Many people in the flooded area weren’t so lucky. At least 175 people died because of the flooding in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia. Hundreds are injured, many are still missing. These catastrophic numbers raise a potentially explosive question for politicians: Could these people still be alive if they had been warned, and actions had been taken, in time.
“The number of victims is simply too high,” says British hydrologist Hannah Cloke, who helped develop the European Flood Awareness System, EFAS. “The water cannot be stopped, but you can get people out of the way.”
A shift has occurred in Germany when it comes to people’s feelings of safety and their belief that the state is protecting them and ensuring their safety in potentially deadly situations.
For a long time, people felt safe here. Many believed that Germany was a highly functioning country. Germans were proud that most things here ran better than elsewhere, that they were safer and more reliable. When a bridge collapsed in Italy, Germans often took note with a mixture of pity and arrogance, believing that it could never happen here.
But it can. That feeling is gone, and not just since last week. It’s been gone for a year and a half.
Although Germany got through the initial phases of the coronavirus pandemic relatively unscathed, the first lockdown revealed deficits that had grown over the years – in digitization, in schooling, in public health departments that still communicated by fax.
Then came the second and third waves and the snafus at the start of the vaccination campaign. That basic feeling of security was replaced by unease. Germany wasn’t functioning nearly as well as had been assumed.
The events in western Germany last week strengthen that sense of unease and prove how ill-prepared the country is for extreme situations. The problem is its disaster management. As in the pandemic, there were gaps, omissions and a tug-of-war between federal, state and local governments. The result being that information was lost and expertise went unutilized. And then there’s Germany’s technology problem: In a suburb of Wuppertal, a medium-sized city, a monk rang the bell to warn people of the flooding.
What’s going wrong, and how can it be changed?
It’s morning on Monday, July 12, and the German Meteorological Service sends out “advance storm information,” a first indication “of a weather situation with high potential for severe weather.” It warns that local precipitation of up to 200 liters per square meter could fall in southern North Rhine-Westphalia. At 5:55 p.m., an official severe weather warning follows for the regions northwest of Saarbrücken, ranging from the Eifel to Hagen in North Rhine-Westphalia. The meteorologists predict “abundant continuous rain” from the period from Tuesday to Thursday as well as areas of heavy rain. The warning is sent to all affected districts, flood-control centers and the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) in Bonn. This is how the reporting protocol is meant to work.
But what consequences do these severe weather warnings have? That’s where the DWD’s responsibility ends. “We lack the local knowledge to derive actions from the weather forecast,” the federal office explains. Those 200 liters of rain, it says, would have a very different impact in low-lying areas than in low mountain ranges with many slopes.
This is where the problem starts. The German states, and in many cases the local districts, are responsible for disaster management, and it is they who should have had to translate what the meteorologists’ predictions mean on the ground. “With 200 liters, the warning bells actually should have been ringing,” says Albrecht Broemme, who was the president of the Federal Agency for Technical Relief until the end of 2019. “But in the end, it was probably just one of many, many warnings that come into the coordination centers.”
Like in Erftstadt. There, the first severe weather warnings reach the fire department’s control center on Monday, days before the flood. Apparently, nobody in the district recognizes the danger and the messages go nowhere. On Wednesday, the heavy rain begins, and the water does not seep away, but instead pours into the basements. Frank Rock, the district administrator of the Rhine-Erft district, is on vacation in France and hopes to go to the Atlantic. His treasurer calls him, and that evening Rock decides to establish a crisis team. He breaks off his vacation the next day – but by then the disaster has long since begun.
At 11 p.m. on Wednesday, the first patients are brought to safety at the Marien Hospital, with flooding imminent. The district sends out several warnings to the population and local media via the “Nina” warning app, but the sirens in Erfstadt don’t sound until Thursday morning, at 8:51 a.m. in the Bliesheim district. At 10:16 a.m., the alarm sounds in Blessem, about 5 kilometers away. Should they have been better prepared?
The flooding destroyed Manfred and Alexandra Fuhs’ consumer electronics store in Ahrweiler, but they can still live in their second-floor apartment.
Foto: David Klammer / DER SPIEGEL
“This was a natural disaster and not a flood. That’s a big difference,” says Rock. Nobody could have foreseen its size, he says. “In Hamburg, there are storm surges. There has never been anything remotely like this before here,” he says, explaining that normally the water here flows away easily.
Nobody could have guessed this could happen – that’s what you hear in many places now.
In Mayschoss on the Ahr River, Mayor Hubertus Kunz, 70, thought his community was well prepared. “After the flood of the century in June 2016, we had an expert report prepared,” he says. He says that the scenario they had prepared for was a peak water level of 4.2 meters, about a half a meter above the highest level of 3.71 meters seen on June 2, 2016. “In any case, we all thought that would be enough,” says Kunz.
And on Wednesday morning, that seemed to be true. The My Pegel app, which reports local water levels, showed the forecast for Altenahr. At first, Kunz says, the flood-control centers’ forecast was still in the green zone, predicting 2.50 meters. Then, between 1 and 2 p.m., there was a significant upward correction, to 3.30 meters. Kunz wasn’t worried, the village was prepared, after all. At least, he thought.
“Then, suddenly, at 4 p.m., a level of over 5 meters was predicted, so I thought they were crazy,” he says, “that couldn’t possibly be true.” He says others in the village also saw the values, but nobody had rung the alarm.
Then in the evening, the flood came. It tore a swath through the village. As things currently stand, every fourth inhabitant lost their home, and so far, the municipality counts five deaths. “Knowing what we know now,” Kunz says, “we should have evacuated.”
Shouldn’t one have known this last week? Was everything really inevitable?
Broemme, the former THW president, says he cannot judge that in detail, but he says something important: “The scattering of responsibility is a problem in disaster management.” In other words, the fact that another level is always responsible, so that, ultimately, nobody takes responsibility. Or they do so too late.
That was already the case during the pandemic. A symbol of this was BBK in Bonn, with its 400 employees and “Joint Situation Center of the Federal Government and States.” One might have expected it to be assigned to manage a major situation like the COVID-19 crisis, but it wasn’t allowed to. Although its name suggests that it exists to protect the population, it was not allowed to do so: It only takes on this responsibility in moments of geopolitical tension or defensive actions like wars. Otherwise, the responsibility falls to the federal states, which are charged with infection control measures.
Then Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s CDU, announced that the office would be upgraded. Another glitch followed in September. Germany’s widely announced national “warning day” became a disaster, when sirens in many locations didn’t even go off. Seehofer fired BBK’s president, Christoph Unger, and replaced him with Armin Schuster, a domestic politician with the CDU. Now, following the floods, the question has once again arisen: What’s the point of a national office if it can do so little? The Left Party is already calling for Seehofer’s resignation.
The minister has defended himself by pointing out that the BBK alone issued about 150 warnings last week, 16 of which were of the highest category. But some mayors and district councils, the Federal Interior Ministry claims, did not act on the warnings. Others didn’t know what to do about them. Seehofer says the federal government isn’t responsible. There it is again, the fateful core issue in the German disaster management system.
In March, Seehofer presented an eight-point plan for reforming disaster management. In the future, joint expert centers of the federal and state governments are to be established. Seehofer says that all that’s needed is a “small change in the law” that is to come quickly.
The minister is under pressure. The Greens have taken note of the issue and their chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock, called for the BBK to have greater powers in DER SPIEGEL shortly after he floods. She was able to draw on a plan her party’s specialized politicians had presented in early February. It included sentences like: “Heavy rain events, in particular, pose major challenges for disaster management.”
Seehofer at least knows he can rely on the SPD. “We should analyze very precisely what can be improved at which point in the process of disaster management,” says Rolf Mützenich, the head of the SPD’s parliamentary group. “Some within the Green Party think they have ready-made answers now. But I think that’s premature.”
The basic problem is that disasters are always abstract until they happen. It’s hard to justify spending money to protect against something that may never occur. “There is no glory in prevention,” is a phrase you often hear from officials working in disaster prevention. It’s a saying that reveals decades of frustration.
The fact that disaster has struck just before a national election in Germany changes a lot of things. The political discussion has already begun.
Sandra Bubendorfer-Licht is a member of the federal parliament with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). She represents Altötting, a town along the Salzach River that barely escaped the flooding. There were also floods in Bavaria, and Bubendorfer-Licht, who has a political focus on disaster-management policy, traveled to Bavaria’s Berchtesgadener Land region to get an idea of the damage. Her conclusion: “The reporting chain didn’t work, the alerts were poor and the handling of events after the crisis was a communications disaster.”
Bubendorfer-Licht believes Germany is “worse equipped than ever before.” She is calling for an immediate disaster management program – and for the officials responsible for disaster management in this catastrophe to be held accountable. “Armin Schuster needs to take political responsibility,” she says.
The Greens, for their part, don’t want the debate to stop here. The flooding has brought their core issue, the climate crisis, back into focus in one fell swoop – and they want to keep the discussion going. Two weeks ago, few would have been listening. Most Germans were pleased that the coronavirus infection rate is so low and that they can enjoy their summer holidays. Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrats’ candidate for chancellor, had been banking on that mood, and now that could become a problem for him.
What is Germany going to do about the climate crisis? He’s not saying much about that these days. At the CDU’s headquarters in Berlin, the word is that the party doesn’t want to change its existing election platforms, that German climate goals are already ambitious. Laschet has also seemed out of place recently as a crisis manager. In terms of climate change, he has been completely absent.
Markus Söder, the governor of Bavaria and the head of the CSU, has been a lot more vocal. “It’s about our footprint in history,” the governor said in a statement from his government on Wednesday. “We all need to get out of our comfort zone.”
It will take years or even decades before action we take now to protect the climate will take effect. Until then, events like last week’s floods are likely to become more common. Germany’s Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance is ill-prepared for that, and this is not only due to its structures. It’s also a technology issue.
When Achim Lorenz, 52, who lives in the hard-hit Ahrweiler district in Rhineland-Palatinate, begins talking about the devastation, his voice breaks. “If the people in charge had acted correctly, probably not as many people would have died,” he says.
Lorenz lives in the town of Bad Neuenahr in the Ahr valley. Last Wednesday night, before the floods struck, he saw on the internet that the water levels were rising in Altenahr, the next town up the river. In the evening, the water levels had already reached over 5.7 meters – a figure that far exceeded previous floods. “That should have set off all the alarm bells,” Lorenz says. Other residents confirmed those levels.
It was only hours later, at midnight, that the fire department first issued a warning by loudspeaker. People were told to stay on the upper floors of their homes and not to go down into the basement. “Based on that information, no one really believed that a disaster of historic proportions was about to happen,” Lorenz says.
In the early morning, the flood wave spread through the valley and swept everything away. Lorenz was lucky. With the exception of his garage, his home was spared, but he still sounds angry. “There would have been enough time to give adequate warning and save people.”
In the past, sirens were used to warn of disasters. They even rang out during the wars. The German government should have modernized them in the early 1990s. The old sirens were difficult to hear through the new, double-glazed windows that had been installed in homes, and they were absent altogether in newly developed areas. The Cold War had ended by then, and the federal government declared the sirens to be superfluous. Municipalities were told they could continue to operate them, but only at their own expense. Many decided against it, and ultimately much of the system was dismantled without being replaced by new technology.
Back in 2011, the Commission for the Protection of Civilians, a group of experts on civil protection that reports to the Interior Ministry, wrote that they had been cautioning for many years about the “lack of a robust warning system covering the whole country.” The commission “strongly recommends that the existing gaps in the warning system be closed as soon as possible.” But little has happened since then.
There may be apps now to warn the public, but there are also many problems. Rather than a centralized solution, several exist in parallel.
The first app was launched not by the government, but by the insurance industry, which commissioned the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems to develop the Katwarn app. The app informs users about dangers based on a smartphone’s location.
A short time after, the BKK launched its Nina app, but some German states and districts had already trained their employees to use the Katwarn app and refused to change.
Both apps now operate in parallel, in addition to the National Meteorological Service’s (DWD) WarnWetter app and the flood control centers’ Mein Pegel app. In each app, alerts are voluntary and can be turned off. There are no reporting requirements and there is no coordination. “There is no ‘detailed overview’ of the means available for issuing warnings in the affected areas or of their use,” the BKK wrote in its initial assessment of the flood.
The federal government had been hoping to play a leading role in the digital world – officials considered apps to be modern and somehow chic. But they don’t help much if only a fraction of Germany’s population have them installed on their phones. The Nina app has only 9 million users. Thomas Jarzombek, the digital expert for the Christian Democrats in charge of start-ups at the Economics Ministry, declared the app to be a “failure” on Tuesday. Meanwhile, France has already discontinued its warning app, Saip, back in 2018, only two years after its release.
People who speak of a “flood of the century” are assuming that something like this is not likely to happen again for the next 100 years.
The European Union has been taking a different approach for some time. Each member state is supposed to introduce its own electronic emergency alert system by 2022. Many countries have long relied on cell broadcast, a type of text messaging service that can send messages up to 1,395 characters in length to all mobile phones currently logged into a network cell. The message pops up directly on the display of all phones that can use the service. It also has the advantage of working with older phones and not just smartphones.
Cell broadcast also offers many other advantages. In contrast to alert apps, it is designed to work reliably, even on congested networks. Messages can be tailored to the specific area, and there are no problems with privacy protection. Unlike text messages, it is not a targeted communication from a sender to a recipient, so it doesn’t require operators to have individual phone numbers.
Experts have considered this to be the best basis for emergency communication for some time now. They believe apps are more suitable as a supplement. Germany nevertheless went its own way.
But those days are over now, and the service will be introduced across Germany, too – as quickly as possible. Industry insiders put the costs at around 10 million euros for each network operator, plus ongoing operating costs. But it’s a manageable sum. Germany’s coronavirus warning app was considerably more expensive. However, it could take longer to implement than some are hoping. From the time it made the decision to implement its own system, a year passed before Italy’s cell broadcast was up and operating.
But even if things do go faster here, that’s not the end of the story. Technology needs to be overhauled, civil protection structures need to be untangled and expertise pooled.
Almost more importantly: Germany will have to change its attitude as a society.
And that starts with terminology. People who speak of a “flood of the century” are assuming that something like this is not likely to happen again for the next 100 years. Germany will have to become more alert, more attentive and more flexible. To prevent the worst from happening, one must be prepared for the worst. It is a task for the coming decades, for politicians, district councilors, mayors, but also for every citizen. And sometimes, even small steps can be decisive.
Frank Rock, the district administrator in Erftstadt, can hardly believe how lucky they were – even days later. “It’s almost a miracle that we have no fatalities so far,” he says. “Especially in the vehicles on the B265 road. That was actually a death trap.”
He now wants a review to take place to see what could be done better in the future if disaster strikes. But he knows one things already: “If there are similar warnings about heavy rain in the future, the B265 will definitely be closed.”