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Catastrophic Flooding Spotlights Germany’s Poor Disaster Preparedness

  • July 23, 2021

“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.

Article source: https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/left-to-their-own-defenses-catastrophic-flooding-spotlights-germany-s-poor-disaster-preparedness-a-b3821147-97d2-4f23-951c-0206bd9ff9b2#ref=rss

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