Like many others in Germany, Wolfgang Huste, 66 years old, knew that a flood was coming, but little did he know how bad it would be.
The Ahrweiler antique bookseller said the severe first warning about evacuating or moving to upper floors of buildings near the Ahr River came over loudspeakers around 8 PM on July 14. After that, Huste heard a brief emergency siren blast with church bells ringing and then it was silence.
“It was spooky, like in a horror film,” he said.
Huste quickly rescued his car from the underground parking lot. The water stood knee-high when he parked it on the street. While safely indoors, Huste saw his car floating on the road five minutes later. He also lost old books that date back to the early 1500s and estimates his total loss to be over 200,000 euros.
“The warning time was far too short,” Huste said.
While people in Germany suffered an imminent disaster as flood deaths in Germany and other neighbouring countries last week are confirmed to exceed 210 on Friday and a total economic cost of billions of dollars, others ask why the emergency system designed to warn people is not working.
Sirens in some towns were broken due to a power outage. In other areas, the sirens did not sound at all. Volunteer firefighters had to go and instruct people on what to do.
Huste pointed to the German Federal Civil Protection Agency building across the valley as it’s where initial responders are trained for possible disasters nationwide. He admitted that few could predict the rate at which water would rise.
“In practice, as we just saw, it didn’t work, let’s say, as well as it should. What the state should have done, it didn’t do. At least not until much later.” Huste said.
The local officials responsible for issuing a disaster warning on the first night at the Ahr valley were laying low for several days since the flood. At least 132 people have died in Ahr Valley alone.
Rhineland-Palatinate officials were in charge of disaster response after the flood but declined to comment on whether there was a mistake when the Friday night disaster hit.
The state official coordinating the disaster response, Thomas Linnertz, said, “People are looking at life in ruins here. Some have lost relatives. There were many dead.”
“I can understand the anger very well. But on the other hand, I have to say again: This was an event that nobody could have predicted.” She added.
Armin Schuster, the head of Germany’s federal disaster agency BKK, affirmed to public broadcaster ARD this week that “things didn’t work as well as they could have.”
He said that his office knows how many sirens have been removed after the Cold War and plans to introduce a “Cell broadcast” that can alert all mobile phones in a particular area.
Heiko Lemke, a resident of Sinzig, remembered how firefighters knocked on the door at 2:00 AM after the floods hit the upstream of Ahrweiler.
Although there was a flood in 2016, Lemke said no one in the village expected that the water of the Ahr river would rise as they scheduled in his community last week.
“They were evacuating people. We were confused because we thought that wasn’t possible.” He said.
Water flooded the ground floor of his family’s house in 20 minutes, but they decided it was too risky to go out, he said.
Lemke’s wife, Daniela Lemke, said, “We wouldn’t have managed to make it around the corner.”
Twelve residents of a neighbouring village helped facilitate the needs of people with disabilities stuck in flood.
Police are investigating whether the facility’s staff responsible for saving the residents could have done more. Still, so far, there is no suggestion that they could face a criminal investigation because authorities didn’t warn on time.
Specialists say that such floodings will become frequent and more severe due to climate change, and countries will have to adapt by making calculated predictions about future floods, improving alarm systems and preparing the people for similar disasters.
Heiko Lemke hopes those things happen now that he knows of the risk but considering that “maybe it would be even better to leave,” he said.