In the wake of the German North Sea storm that killed 315 Germans, German federal government officials are being accused of ignoring a series of warnings issued by scientists in quick succession before Germany experienced its worst devastating floods since 1962 last week.
The floods, which devastated Germany’s affluent Rhineland region, caught many local authorities, residents and businesses off guard, even though the first warnings about the likelihood of flooding had been issued as early as July 10, three days before the floods caused the Rhine and Meuse rivers to rise so high that they broke their banks.
Scientists from the Copernicus Emergency Management Service and the European Flood Sense system said both the German and Belgian governments had been warned of the possibility of flooding.
Hannah Cloke, a professor of hydrology at the University of Reading, told AFP that “the fact that so many people will die in Europe in 2021 from flooding represents a major failure of the whole system.”
She added, “It scares me to see people driving or trekking through floodwaters that deep because it’s the most dangerous thing you can do in a flood. Weather forecasters had seen the storm coming and issued warnings earlier last week, but the warnings were not taken seriously enough and preparations were inadequate. This high-energy summer storm is exactly what we would expect in a rapidly warming climate.”
While massive search-and-rescue efforts were still underway Sunday (July 18) in the worst-hit regions of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the affected areas and pledged to rebuild for the better. She shook the hand of a grieving local politician and then said: “My coming here today symbolizes that we are all one. We will repair step by step in this beautiful place and we must act fast.”
But the German media has begun to question whether the federal government should have acted quickly before the storm hit, and has focused on the potential political effects of the flooding that destroyed homes and businesses. Thousands of people suffered power outages or were left without clean drinking water.
Officials said the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance did post a warning on its app that flooding was coming. But critics say very few people in Germany have downloaded the app on their smartphones and that louder warnings should have been issued to better prepare local communities for last week’s torrential rains.
The mega-influential German tabloid Bild accused the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance of major failures in its work.
“The floods came at night, which caught hundreds of thousands of people off guard,” the paper said in an editorial. “The force of the flood trapped people in their basements, knocked them down as they ran or swept them away along with their houses. More than a hundred dead and countless missing are to be mourned, but where is the warning? Where are the warnings? Where are the radio loudspeaker announcements?”
The newspaper concluded that the warnings “were largely not given or were given too late.”
Other German media pointed out that hundreds of people had taken refuge in basements, the worst kind of shelter.
Hundreds of towns and villages in western Germany were destroyed. Images of the devastation appeared on German television or on social media sites to the amazement of Germans.
Federal elections in two months
The floods come two months before the federal elections that will decide who will take over from Angela Merkel. Merkel will say goodbye to politics after 16 years in power.
The federal government is preparing an immediately approved $354 million bailout package. Officials say the cost of rebuilding will be in the billions of dollars, with the Elbe and Danube rivers flooding in 2013 and costing up to $9 billion to rebuild after the disaster.
Ruling Social Democratic lawmakers hope a quick federal response will offset the political damage caused by mounting allegations of inadequate pre-flood preparation, and they will also closely monitor post-flood polls to see if their approval ratings have slipped ahead of September’s federal elections.
The Social Democrats’ candidate to replace Merkel, Armin Laschet, has added another dimension to the ruling party’s concerns. His campaign team was already unclear, and on Saturday (July 17) he was forced to apologize for being seen laughing with an aide while accompanying President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on a visit to the disaster zone.
Raschett is the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia.
He later tweeted his remorse, saying, “It was inappropriate and I’m sorry. Those affected by the disaster are in our hearts, as we have heard in many conversations,” he wrote. Photos of Raschett joking with aides in the background as Steinmeier made his serious statement were published in most major German newspapers.
Raschett’s apology did not appease his critics. “It was all obviously a big joke,” tweeted Maximilian Reimers of the far-left opposition party Die Line. “How can he be prime minister?” “I’m completely speechless,” tweeted Lars Klingbeil, secretary general of the left-of-center Social Democratic Party, which forms the ruling coalition with the Christian Democrats.
Raschett, like most mainstream German politicians, linked the floods to climate change. But the Greens, who have been doing well in the polls and have only slipped slightly in recent weeks, have been critical of the Christian Democrats’ climate action plans, saying they don’t go far enough.