German officials are defending their preparations for flooding in the face of the raging torrents that caught many people by surprise and left over 190 people dead in Western Europe, but concede that they will need to learn lessons from the disaster.
Efforts to find any more victims and clean up the mess across a swath of western Germany, eastern Belgium and the Netherlands continued on Monday as floodwaters receded. So far, 117 people have been confirmed dead in the worst-affected German region, Rhineland-Palatinate; 46 in the neighboring state of North Rhine-Westphalia; and at least one in Bavaria, parts of which saw heavy rain and flooding over the weekend. At least 31 people died in Belgium.
The downpours that led to usually small rivers swelling at vast speed in the middle of last week were forecast, but warnings of potentially catastrophic damage didn’t appear to have found their way to many people on the ground — often in the middle of the night.
“As soon as we have provided the immediate aid that stands at the forefront now, we will have to look at whether there were things that didn’t go well, whether there were things that went wrong, and then they have to be corrected,” Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told the Bild newspaper. “That isn’t about finger-pointing — it’s about improvements for the future.”
Federal and state authorities faced criticism from opposition politicians for allegedly failing to warn citizens of the impending disaster, which came ahead of a national election in September. But Interior Minister Horst Seehofer dismissed claims that federal officials had made mistakes, and said warnings were passed to local authorities “who make decisions on disaster protection.”
“I have to say that some of the things I’m hearing now are cheap election rhetoric,” Seehofer said during a visit to the Steinbach Reservoir in western Germany, where authorities said on Monday they no longer fear a dam breach. “Now really isn’t the hour for this.”
The head of Germany’s civil protection agency said that the country’s weather service had “forecast relatively well” and that the country was well-prepared for flooding on its major rivers.
But, Armin Schuster told ZDF television late Sunday, “half an hour before, it is often not possible to say what place will be hit with what quantity” of water. He said that 150 warning notices had been sent out via apps and media.
He said “we will have to investigate” where sirens sounded and where they didn’t.
Officials in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate state said they were well-prepared for flooding, and municipalities were alerted and acted.
But the state’s interior minister, Roger Lewentz, said after visiting the hard-hit village of Schuld with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday that “we of course had the problem that the technical infrastructure — electricity and so on — was destroyed in one go.”
Local authorities “tried very quickly to react,” he said. “But this was an explosion of the water in moments. … You can have the very best preparations and warning situations (but) if warning equipment is destroyed and carried away with buildings, then that is a very difficult situation.” Cellphone networks also were knocked out by the flooding.
There were already broader questions about Germany’s emergency warning system after a nationwide test last September, the first in 30 years, largely failed. Sirens didn’t sound in many places, or had been removed after the end of the Cold War, and push alerts from the national warning app arrived late or not all.
Schuster, the head of the civil protection agency, noted that a program to reform civil protection was launched earlier this year, including a drive to encourage local authorities to install more sirens. Germany doesn’t have a text messaging system for disaster warnings, but Schuster told Deutschlandfunk radio it is exploring the possibility.
As local communities contemplate the huge task of rebuilding smashed homes and infrastructure such as the water system, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet is set to draw up a package of immediate and medium-term financial aid on Wednesday.
At the Steinbach Reservoir, North Rhine-Westphalia state governor Armin Laschet said the dam was designed for a risk that might occur once in 10,000 years.
“This was exceeded in the last few days,” he told reporters. “It was a likelihood nobody had foreseen.”