On natural disasters in Germany
The anniversary of Hamburg's disastrous flood raises questions about how good German disaster prevention is today.
This week marked the 60th anniversary of the devastating flood that hit Hamburg in 1962, leaving 315 people dead.
In the midst of the night on February 16th, hurricane force winds blew masses of water up the Elbe river. The dykes that had been built around the city weren’t up to the task of holding the water back: either they were built too steeply and collapsed under the pressure, or they were too short and water surged over the top.
In 60 different locations the dykes were breached.
The residents of the city were caught unawares. Attempts to warn them by radio fell on sleeping ears.
By the next morning a sixth of the city stood under water. Low-lying districts south of the river were particularly badly hit. People who had lost their homes during the bombing of WWII and refugees from the east were often the victims. They were still living in poorly built huts.
Beyond the deaths, thousands more were left homeless.
With northern Germany being battered by storms this week, questions have been raised as to whether the city is now better prepared.
Corinna Schrum, an expert in flood systems at the Helmholtz Institute, told Der Spiegel that a renewed disaster on the scale of 1962 “can’t be ruled out,” but said that the city’s investment in higher dykes had prepared it for the worst.
“Since 1962 there has never again been such extensive damage and so many fatalities,” she said. “Later storm surges were higher in some cases, but were less severe - precisely because coastal protection has been strengthened,” she added.
Among the changes that are still ongoing are the creation of higher dykes and a 20-kilometre flood wall that can be pulled into place if need be.
“In my opinion, disaster protection on the coasts in Germany is very professional,” said Schrumm. “There are capable personnel in the offices and responsible agencies. They really have their eye on the ball.”
A recent tragedy shows though that the same can not be said for flood protection in other parts of the country.
In July 2021, close to 200 people died in similar circumstances to the great flood in Hamburg. This time tragedy struck far from the coasts in the inland state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
During the night of July 14th the river Ahr burst its banks after a deluge of rain that only happens every few decades. People drowned in their houses as the surge ripped away at the foundations. They hadn’t been warned of the impending catastrophe.
In the immediate aftermath an emotional debate raged as to who was responsible. But, instead of looking for specific failings in the crisis prevention system vor Ort, the German media focused on the question of whether we were all to blame due to our emissions of green house gases into the atmosphere.
In a public debate still heavily infused with Christian ideas of original sin, the flooding in Ahrtal was quickly reduced to a morality lesson: was it retribution for living such excessive lives?
Politicians were only too happy to direct the discussion in this direction. Armin Laschet, state leader in flood-hit NRW, said the disaster showed that more needed to be done to reduce our impact on the climate.
One of the few voices to warn against using climate change as a catch all to explain catastrophes was Axel Bojanowski, science journalist at Die Welt. He argued that “Germany’s disaster response system is on par with that of a developing country, but politicians abuse climate change as an excuse to avoid talking about the real causes.”
The reality of the Ahrtal is that, like Hamburg, its geography makes it vulnerable to flooding. Surges in 1804 and 1910 both left devastation in their wakes: the impervious rock of the valley floor and the tight turns of the river both exacerbate heavy rainfall.
After the initial media hand-wring had passed, Germany did start to look more carefully at the human failings that had failed to prevent the deaths.
In August, prosecutors opened an investigation into the head of the local council, Jürgen Pföhler, on suspicion of negligent homicide. That was followed by the state parliament in Rhineland-Palatinate starting a parliamentary investigation.
“We had indications that human error was a factor in causing deaths of this magnitude," said Gordon Schnieder, who is leading the CDU on the committee.
The investigations are asking why local politicians did not declare a state of emergency in the early evening of July 14th, despite warnings of impending disaster.
Cornelia Weigand, the mayor of a small community further up the river, alerted the Ahrtal council to the rising waters in the late afternoon. She urged them to declare a state of emergency.
“I hoped that helicopters would be sent to the scene for an air rescue as early as the evening and be able to start rescue flights,” she told broadcaster ARD.
But nothing happened.
The parliamentary committee has also heard from meteorologists who point out that severe weather warnings for the region were issued for several days in advance of the flooding. The weathermen knew a deluge was coming, even if they couldn’t say exactly where it would hit.
Witnesses have described how local council head Pföhler made two brief visits to the local emergency room that evening. Otherwise he was seen walking his dog.
Meanwhile firemen who could have helped with the evacuation have told of how they didn’t know that houses had been torn down by the flood until the next morning.
Hannah Cloke, professor of hydrology at the University of Reading, told the committee that a “collective system failure” caused the tragedy. The one consolation, she added, was that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing where the problem lies.
At the least, the existence of the parliamentary committee shows that local politicians accept that the cause of the deaths is to be found in the Ahr valley.