Merkel defends warning system and makes flood funding promise

Chancellor promises inquiry into why severe weather warnings were not passed on

German chancellor Angela Merkel in the flood-ravaged spa town Bad Munstereifel, in North Rhine-Westphalia state, western Germany, on Tuesday. Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images)

German chancellor Angela Merkel in the flood-ravaged spa town Bad Munstereifel, in North Rhine-Westphalia state, western Germany, on Tuesday. Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images)

 

Germany’s federal and state leaders will back €400 million in emergency funding on Wednesday for regions devastated by last week’s catastrophic flooding.

On her second trip to the crisis regions, with the death toll now at 169, Chancellor Angela Merkel promised a full inquiry into why a series of severe weather warnings were not passed on to people in the worst-hit regions.

“We have a very good warning system and I think we have to learn what worked, but we mustn’t forget this flood was the likes of which we’ve not have for a very, very long time,” said Dr Merkel after two hours touring the ruined tourist town of Bad Münstereifel.

The pretty main street, once lined with timber-framed houses, is now a scene of warlike devastation.

Underlining the postwar mood, lines of locals were passing along buckets of wreckage like Germany’s Trümmerfrauen or “rubble women”.

At her side was local mayor Sabine Preiser-Marin who insisted, politely but firmly, that locals expected rapid follow-through on promises of emergency aid.

“We have developed the most remarkable solidarity in the last days, everyone working hand in hand, it’s hard to express what’s been achieved,” said Ms Preiser-Marin. “But our town, our villages, everything’s hit rock bottom, destroyed.” Standing between the two women was Armin Laschet, minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia.

With 47 people dead in his state – and many still missing – he promised investment in flood-protection infrastructure – and to revive a state siren system, neglected since the end of the Cold War.

Mr Laschet has been under fire since cameras caught him joking and laughing with aides on Saturday after touring a ruined town. Meanwhile, as Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader and would-be chancellor, his election promise to balance climate-protection measures with industrial interests appear to be undergoing a sharp correction.

“We have to do everything against climate change, local and globally . . . to milden its effects and avoid the worst,” he said. “We have to recognise that, in the coming years, such extreme weather events will happen greater frequency and intensity.”

Emergency warnings

As local annoyance subsides over his behaviour on Saturday, fury is growing over how state officials reacted to a series of emergency warnings.

Dr Merkel said on Tuesday that two sets of warnings had been passed on to state capitals, who in turn had passed them on to municipal leaders. Text-message warnings were not possible, Germany’s federal government has confirmed, because this contravened national data-protection law.

Early indications are that the urgency of the situation – and the opportunity to organise timely evacuations – was lost somewhere in Germany’s decentralised chain of competences between state, municipalities and counties.

As emergency crews work around the clock to restore water, power and the mobile-phone and data networks, state engineering crews have almost completed their first survey of the damage. The preliminary price tag: €2 billion, and untold years of disruption to repair roads and bridges snapped in two by raging flash floods.

“We have so many structures destroyed, and just don’t have the manpower to rebuild at once,” said Mr Alex Freund, a transport engineer in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Fears of a new Covid-19 spike in the affected regions has seen vaccination buses deployed to the worst-hit areas to administer jabs. Meanwhile, doctors are struggling to treat a surge of patients with wounds, broken limbs – and less visible complaints.

Dr Klaus Korte, whose practice in the town of Ahrbrück was damaged by the flood waters, said: “We have many people with severe post-traumatic symptoms, many patients with near-death experiences, who almost drowned.”