Germany defends flood preparations as search for victims, cleanup continue

German officials defended their actions ahead of last week's severe floods that caught many towns by surprise and killed at least 196 people in western Europe, but they conceded that more lessons can be learned from the disaster.

At least 196 people dead in western Europe after devastating flooding

Massive cleanup underway in German flood zone

2 months ago
Western Germany is trying to clean up a staggering amount of debris, including personal belongings and smashed infrastructure, after catastrophic floods last week. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters) 1:00

German officials defended their actions ahead of last week's severe floods that caught many towns by surprise and killed at least 196 people in western Europe, but they conceded that more lessons can be learned from the disaster.

As floodwaters receded Monday, authorities continued searching for more victims and intensified their efforts to clean up a sodden swath of western Germany, eastern Belgium and the Netherlands. According to officials, so far there have been:

  • 117 people confirmed dead in the worst-affected German region, Rhineland-Palatinate.
  • 47 people reported dead in the neighbouring state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
  • At least one person reported dead in Bavaria, parts of which saw heavy rain and flooding over the weekend.
  • At least 31 people died in Belgium.

Authorities said they were likely to find more victims among destroyed homes.

Election looming

Weather officials had forecast the downpours that led to even small rivers swelling rapidly, but warnings of potentially catastrophic damage didn't appear to have made it to many people in affected areas.

Federal and state authorities faced criticism from opposition politicians for allegedly failing to warn citizens of the impending disaster, which comes as a national election looms in September.

But Interior Minister Horst Seehofer dismissed claims that federal officials had made mistakes and said warnings were passed to local authorities "who make decisions on disaster protection."

"I have to say that some of the things I'm hearing now are cheap election rhetoric," Seehofer said during a visit to the Steinbach Reservoir in western Germany, where authorities said Monday they no longer fear a dam breach. "Now really isn't the hour for this."

Seehofer underlined that message during a visit Monday to Bad Neuenahr, in the worst-hit area, but said authorities will have to draw lessons once the immediate relief phase is over.

"Wherever we can improve anything — in alarms, in equipment ... we must do so," he said. "We owe that to the families who have been affected, and above all to the victims."

The head of Germany's civil protection agency said that the weather service had "forecast relatively well" and that the country was well prepared for flooding on its major rivers.

But Armin Schuster told ZDF television late Sunday that "half an hour before, it is often not possible to say what place will be hit with what quantity" of water. He said that 150 warning notices had been sent out via apps and media.

"We will have to investigate" where sirens sounded and where they didn't, he said.

PHOTOS | Devastation caused by flooding in Altenahr, Germany:

Police officers look at a piece of road that has sunken in the city of Altenahr, Rhineland-Palatinate, western Germany, on Monday, after devastating floods hit the region. (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)
Debris and uprooted trees hang from a bridge over the Ahr River next to a hotel in Altenahr. (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)
Two brothers weep in each other's arms in front of their parents' house, which was destroyed by the flood in Altenahr. (Boris Roessler/dpa/The Associated Press)
Emergency workers walk across a muddy street strewn with debris and uprooted trees. (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)
A partially collapsed house stands near the banks of the Ahr River on Saturday after heavy rain caused mudslides and flooding. (Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa/The Associated Press)

Questions about warning system

Officials in Germany's Rhineland-Palatinate state said they were well prepared for flooding, and municipalities were alerted and acted.

But the state's interior minister, Roger Lewentz, said after visiting the hard-hit village of Schuld with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday that "we of course had the problem that the technical infrastructure — electricity and so on — was destroyed in one go."

Local authorities "tried very quickly to react," he said. "But this was an explosion of the water in moments. … You can have the very best preparations and warning situations, [but] if warning equipment is destroyed and carried away with buildings, then that is a very difficult situation."

Cellphone networks also were knocked out by the flooding. 

There were already broader questions about Germany's emergency warning system after a nationwide test last September, the first in 30 years, largely failed.

Sirens didn't sound in many places or had been removed after the end of the Cold War, and push alerts from the national warning app arrived late or not at all.

Schuster, the head of the civil protection agency, noted that a program to reform civil protection was launched earlier this year, including a drive to encourage local authorities to install more sirens. Germany doesn't have a text messaging system for disaster warnings, but Schuster told Deutschlandfunk radio it is exploring the possibility.

Damage and debris from flooding is seen near the Ahr River, including in the spa complex on Sunday in Bad Neuenahr, Germany. (Thomas Frey/dpa/The Associated Press)

As local communities contemplate the huge task of rebuilding smashed homes and infrastructure such as the water system, Merkel's cabinet is set to draw up a package of immediate and medium-term financial aid on Wednesday.

At the Steinbach Reservoir, North Rhine-Westphalia state governor Armin Laschet said the dam was designed for a risk that might occur once in 10,000 years.

"This was exceeded in the last few days," he told reporters. "It was a likelihood nobody had foreseen."

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