BERLIN – Days before choppy waters swept through western Germany, a European meteorological agency issued an “extreme” flood warning after detailed models showed storms threatening to push rivers upward. levels that a German meteorologist said on Friday had not been seen for 500 or even 1,000 years.
Those predictions turned out to be devastatingly accurate on Friday, with more than 100 dead and 1,300 missing, as helicopter rescue teams ripped up residents stranded in sometimes flooded villages within minutes, raising questions about the failures in the flood warning system developed in Germany.
Many areas, victims and officials said, were caught off guard when normally placid streams and streams turned into torrents that swept away cars, houses and bridges and everything in their path.
“It went so fast. You tried to do something, and it was already too late, ”a resident of Schuld told German public television ARD, after the river Ahr swelled its banks, tearing up tidy half-timbered houses and sending vehicles dancing like bath toys.
Extreme downpours like those that have occurred in Germany are one of the most visible signs that the climate is changing due to warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have shown that they now occur more frequently for one simple reason: a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, resulting in more and more powerful precipitation.
But even as extreme weather events become more frequent around the world, from wildfires in the American West to more intense hurricanes. in the Caribbean – the flooding that cut a wide path of destruction across Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands this week was virtually unprecedented, according to German meteorologists and officials.
Even so, they were not unforeseen.
“There should not have been so many deaths from this event,” said Dr Linda Speight, a hydrometeorologist at the University of Reading in Britain, who studies how flooding occurs. She blamed poor communication on the high risk posed by the floods as contributing to the significant loss of life.
For now, German politicians have been keen not to appear to politicize a calamity, and Chancellor spokeswoman Angela Merkel has said she plans to visit the stricken state of Rhineland-Palatinate. , after returning from the talks in Washington.
But the natural disaster had all the hallmarks of an event that in the past reshaped political fortunes in German election seasons like this.
Armin Laschet, the conservative leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, who is running for the succession of Ms Merkel after the national elections on September 26, said at a press conference on Friday: “Our state is experiencing a flood disaster. a historic scale “.
“We need to make the state more climate resilient,” said Laschet, who faces his biggest challenge from the Green Party. “We need to make Germany climate neutral even faster.”
But his state has been among the hardest hit, and once the floodwaters recede, he and Merkel might still wonder why their political strongholds weren’t better prepared.
German officials said on Friday that their warning system, which includes a network of sensors measuring river levels in real time, was working as it was supposed to. The problem, they said, was an amount of rain they had never seen before – falling so quickly that it clogged even small streams and rivers that aren’t normally considered threats.
To describe the events of the past few days as a hundred-year flood would be an understatement, said Uwe Kirsche, spokesman for the German weather service, calling it an unprecedented flood for perhaps a millennium.
“With these little rivers, they’ve never experienced anything like it,” Kirsche said. “Nobody could prepare because nobody expected something like this.”
Tuesday, Felix Dietsch, meteorologist for the German meteorological service, went to YouTube to warn that parts of southwestern Germany could receive previously unimaginable amounts of rain. Up to 70 liters, or more than 18 gallons, of water could spill over an area of one square meter in a matter of hours, he warned.
The Meteorological Service, a government agency, has assigned its most extreme storm warning, code purple, to the Eifel and Moselle regions. It was one of several warnings issued by the weather service on Twitter and other media earlier this week that were also passed on to state and local officials, firefighters and police.
But the waters have risen so rapidly, to heights exceeding previously recorded record levels, that the response plans of some communities have been made totally inadequate while others have been completely caught off guard.
A spokesperson for the office responsible for monitoring flooding and alerting local authorities in Rhineland-Palatinate said all warnings had been received from the weather service and passed on to local communities as planned.
But what happened after that is critical and not entirely clear.
In the village of Müsch, at the confluence of the Ahr and Trierbach rivers, Michael Stoffels, 32, said he had not received any warning from the government, but a neighbor called on Wednesday to alert him to the rapid rise waters.
He rushed home from the retail store he runs nearby to grab what he could. He was lucky, he said, because he has storage at ground level and his living area is above that, so the 12 feet of water his house took did not. caused significant damage.
But the village of 220 people was ravaged by flash floods which, according to a resident, Maria Vazquez, did their job in less than two hours. Friday night there was no electricity, no running water, no cell phone.
The banks of the river were scenes of devastation, with crushed cars and huge tree stumps, while many cobbled streets were covered in mud and debris. Trucks filled with broken furniture, tree branches and pieces of stone rolled slowly over broken power lines.
“A lot of good cars have crashed or been crashed,” said Ms. Vazquez, who works in a nearby auto repair shop. “I work with cars so it’s sad, but I just hope everyone is okay”
Across the Belgian border, 20 people have been confirmed dead and 20 are still missing, the country’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Friday, calling the floods “the most catastrophic our country has ever known. “.
Waters rose over lakes in Switzerland and over waterways in the Netherlands, leaving hundreds of homes without electricity and submerging downtown Valkenburg in the Netherlands, although neither country suffered death or destruction inflicted on German cities.
Medard Roth, mayor of Kordel, in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, defended the warning systems and said he activated his town’s emergency flood response once he was alerted that the waters of the Kyll River were approaching dangerous levels. But the waters rose too rapidly to be held back by the usual measures.
“Already on Wednesday afternoon at 3.30pm, the Kordel fire brigade started to put in place the security measures,” Mr Roth told Bild, a German newspaper. “At 6 pm, everything was already underwater. No one could have predicted that. “
Ursula Heinen-Esser, Minister of the Environment for the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, said in an online presentation on Friday that the floodwaters had reached “levels never recorded before”.
The German flood warning system leaves it up to local authorities to decide what action to take, assuming they are best informed of the local terrain and of the people or property in a river crossing. overflowing.
In some cases, it appears that the warnings were issued on time. In the town of Wuppertal, located in a valley crossed by the Wupper River, a crisis committee comprising police, firefighters and city officials used social media to urge people to stay home.
Early Thursday, shortly after midnight, they sounded a warning siren, which looks suspiciously like the one used during World War II, to alert residents to move to upper floors or to evacuate when the waters rose.
Wuppertal suffered property damage, such as flooding in the local opera orchestra pit, but no deaths, city spokeswoman Martina Eckermann said.
But in other places the warnings came too late.
In the district of Ahrweiler in neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate, regional authorities issued their first warning to residents living near the banks of the river as it approached its all-time high of 3 meters, or nearly 10 feet. It wasn’t until three hours later, as the waters surpassed the previous flood record, that a state of emergency was declared.
By that time, many people had fled to the upper floors of their homes, but those who could not move fast enough died, such as 12 disabled residents of a care home in Sinzig, who did not been alerted in time to be helped from their land. -the bedrooms on the ground floor before the water rises.
“The warnings have arrived,” said Mr Kirsche of the German weather service. “But the question is, why the evacuations didn’t take place sooner?” This is something we have to think about.
Melissa Eddy has reported from Berlin, Jack Ewing from Frankfurt, Megan Specia from London and Steven Erlanger from Müsch, Germany.