by Thorsten Koch

The situation in the wake of the severe floodings in the west of the Federal Republic of Germany has stabilized. Authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate announced that officials and helpers are now getting a comprehensive picture of the situation. It is already evident that many residential buildings will be permanently uninhabitable. In the Ahrweiler district, in Rhineland-Palatinate, at least 122 people have died as a result of the severe weather, police announced. According to the police headquarters in charge, at least 48 people have died in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer (CSU) said that the federal structure of disaster control was fundamentally correct. North Rhine-Westphalia’s Interior Minister Reul also said the reaction was appropriate, but added that the extent of the disaster was not foreseeable.

The German District Association spoke out against changing the system towards centralization. The technical warning options are currently still insufficiently used. The warnings from the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Relief apparently did not reach everyone. The Federal Office has meanwhile declared that the authority’s warning mechanisms and reporting channels are appropriate. How the subordinate authorities reacted to the warnings was a key question.

Future warnings – and a central spatial plan

A spokeswoman for the Technical Relief Organization spoke out in favor of not indulging in blame. Siren alarms with specific warning tones will again be necessary in the future. Chancellor Angela Merkel had uttered during her visit she conducted along with the North Rhine-Westphalian Prime Minister Armin Laschet (both CDU) in Bad Münstereifel: “Maybe the good old siren is more useful than one thought.” The Federal Commissioner of Data Protection is not against introducing the the Cell-Broadcast disaster warning system, with which people having registered in advance can be alerted, via SMS, to dangers. According to the office, this would be unobjectionable in terms of data protection

The chairman of the Conference of Interior Ministers, Thomas Strobl (CDU), had emphasized that help and solidarity were needed, and only later would it be of the order to shed light on the exact causes of the disaster – and on better solutions. Helpers are exposed to extreme loads, Strobl added. .

A nationwide spatial plan for flood protection is intended to ensure that the Federal States and municipalities in future identify sensitive areas according to uniform criteria and restrict the construction of houses and transport networks in the affected areas. A representative of the Federal Environment Ministry said that according to a joint proposal by the Interior and the Economic Ministries, flood protection should be taken into account at the highest level of spatial planning. Any further need for regulations should be clarified through a dialogue with all competent instances of the country.

“Completely new understanding”

Friedrich Merz, the Vice-President of the CDU-affiliated Economic Council, emphasized that “it will no longer be possible to erect buildings in certain areas in the future.” Otherwise, “homeowners and entrepreneurs run the risk of losing everything again in the next flood.” High-risk areas would have to be kept free of construction. In addition, floodplains had to be made available again as retention areas. Former Federal Minister of the Environment Jürgen Trittin (Greens) made a similar statement, suggesting that in addition to areas where water can collect in the event of flooding, water should be discharged more quickly in narrow valleys. It is about to give the water more space – even if it becomes a difficult way to protect from floods, he added.

The President of the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Protection, Armin Schuster, called for a “completely new understanding” of crisis management in order to minimize the damage. What was learned about floods in large rivers has not been transposed to “the dangers of small rivers”. Schuster suggested setting up a Competence Center at the federal level which, in addition to his office, should also include other federal authorities, the states, local authorities, and aid organizations.

Flood audits and more wind energy

The Federal Ministry of the Environment is demanding that the municipalities better adapt to the climatic conditions. The cities, municipalities and districts already had the option of flood audits. Such means could be used to identify weak points such as narrow streams and rivers. The Federal Government will contribute financially so that retention areas can be created. Federal Environment Minister Schulze stressed that adapting to climate change “is an ongoing task and also includes reducing carbon dioxide. To this end, wind energy is to be promoted and the energy supply ensured. The phase-out of coal energy would take place more quickly that way.

Reconstruction will take years

According to the German construction industry, the flood damage in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate will only be repaired several years from now. The amount of damage cannot be quantified in accounting. “After the Elbe flood in 2002, it took about three years for the greatest damage to be repaired and five years for the affected areas to look neat again,” said the President of the Central Association of the German Building Industry, Reinhardt Quast. Rails, bridges and roads have been severely damaged where the floods raged.

The extent of the damage in West Germany is monumental, but cannot yet be quantified. However, it is already clear that about 600 kilometers of railway tracks are affected as well as over 80 railway stops. Mud and debris must first be removed before it will be possible to begin repairing the damage. The cellular network still has gaps. Phone provider Vodaphone announced that a sixth of the radio stations are affected. Basic services for smartphone users should be in place again this week.

Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) announced that the transport infrastructure should be restored as soon as possible. To this end, a ministry task force has already met and initiated a more detailed damage assessment. The task force also included representatives from Deutsche Bahn. Working groups will now be dispatched to the sites. A spokesman spoke of a huge effort which had to be made.

Perspectives of finance

The Federal Government would like to cover some part of the costs of dealing with the flood damage through the EU Solidarity Fund. In a first step, the government will contribute half of the emergency aid provided by the Federal States with up to 200 million Euros. If the Federal States agree on a disaster fund, the Federal Government would like to participate, and has indicated its availability for reconstruction assistance.

The general association of the German insurance industry announced that it would not be expedient to decide on compulsory insurance against extreme weather. This would deprive homeowners and entrepreneurs of the incentive to take precautionary measures against flood risks. Compulsory insurance could make premiums unaffordable for policyholders. What is more, risks for the insurers would no longer be acceptable. It is necessary to shoulder the different means of adaptation to the effects of climate change instead.

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