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Germany’s Heinsberg: First the pandemic, now flooding

  • July 20, 2021

If ever a person in Ophoven in the Heinsberg district of Germany has been dogged by bad luck, it is Mario Girardi. For 18 years, this Italian businessman successfully ran the Dolce Vita restaurant in Erkelenz, 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from Ophoven. In March 2020, he took over the restaurant Zur Mühle in Ophoven, an eatery with a great location and seating for 80 people. It seemed like a real stroke of luck.

It will probably take a few weeks before he can reopen his restaurant, Mario Girardi says

But barely a week after he opened his new restaurant, Germany saw its first major coronavirus outbreak in nearby Gangelt in the wake of carnival festivities. Girardi still managed to keep the restaurant afloat somehow.

On July 11 of this year, he felt his luck had returned when Italy won the European soccer championship. Just a few days later, however, the tide turned again in an almost literal sense: The flooding started. 

Girardi kept the restaurant open during the day on that Friday, he recalls, although he “already saw water flowing down the street.” He and his team placed sandbags everywhere, he says, “but the water came through the back exit into the bowling alley and the kitchen.”

In the late evening, the town’s 700 inhabitants were evacuated because a dam had burst on the Rur River. Gerardi, too, had to lock up and leave his beloved restaurant. The next morning, he received a call informing him that there were 40 centimeters (16 inches) of water in the restaurant. Since then, he, the fire department and countless helpers have pumped out the muddy mess, working almost to the point of exhaustion.

“By and large, we’ve been very lucky,” Girardi says. “In other parts of Germany, people have died and houses have been completely destroyed — that really makes me sad.”

Exhausting task not just for firefighters

The fact that Ophoven got off relatively lightly is largely down to the tireless work of fire chief Holger Röthling and his army of volunteers. “We filled and placed over 30,000 sandbags here in the district, and tons of people pitched in.”

As the water recedes, a mound of sandbags is left in Ophoven

Röthling, who has hardly slept a wink in the last few days, sits in the fire station, utterly exhausted. The waters are slowly receding, so he can finally relax. He is confident that residents will soon be able to return to their homes.

He has never before had to pile so many sandbags, Röthling says

Once the firefighters have freed the streets from the floodwaters, they will check each house to see how much water is in them. “The oil furnaces that have leaked oil are a problem,” says Röthling, “We can’t just pump that out; specialists have to come and remove it.”

The right decision

It is just a few steps from the fire department headquarters to the offices of Marcel Maurer, the mayor of nearby Wassenberg. Such short distances make communication noticeably easier when there is a catastrophe to deal with. It was Maurer who, together with the crisis team, made the decision to evacuate Ophoven as a precaution.

You never know when a dam might burst, says Mayor Maurer

The mayor was voted into office less than a year ago, and the flood was his first major challenge. He did not hesitate to cut short his summer vacation in view of the threatening situation. “Above all, we protected the transformer station, which provides Wassenberg’s entire power supply,” he says. If that had been shut down because of the flooding, he says, “the lights would literally have gone out for up to 10,000 people here.”

Maurer quickly had an elementary school turned into an emergency shelter, providing accommodation for 29 people who had nowhere else to go. “All of a sudden, you are a crisis manager; it’s a very demanding time,” he says.

Farmers rode to Ophoven on their tractors from miles away

At the moment, Ophoven is a good example of how solidarity can overcome any distance — dozens of people have come from near and far to help out with heavy equipment; hundreds have been carrying sandbags. A group of farmers even showed up with tractors;  they had come all the way from the city of Münster, which is 200 kilometers (124 miles) away.

‘Not the time for finger-pointing’

At the same time, Ophoven is also an example of inadequate flood protection. A year ago, experts from the responsible water authority assured the town council that any flood would flow right by Ophoven. Mayor Maurer will now be pushing for the rapid construction of a new dike that was rejected in August 2020 on the basis of this expert opinion.

Apart from reconstruction, the biggest challenge for the mayor could be the normalization of German-Dutch relations. Ophoven lies just a kilometer from the border; the Rur River flows into the Meuse at the Dutch town of Roermond, which also grappled with flooded streets and ordered evacuations.

The Dutch authorities had closed a sluice on the Rur because of the flood, which led to accusations from the German side that the move caused the dam to burst. According to the Limburg Dike Association, however, there is no link.

Mayor Maurer is also obviously trying to smooth the waters: “The Dutch protect their cities as best they can, and I would have done the same in this situation. We maintain a very friendly neighborhood here in the border region, and now is not the time for finger-pointing.”

This article has been translated from German.

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