BERLIN (AP) – German authorities are protecting their products from flooding, which has taken many by surprise and killed more than 190 people in Western Europe, but acknowledge that they need to learn lessons from the disaster.
Efforts to find more victims across West Germany, East Belgium and the Netherlands to clear the mess continued Monday. It has been confirmed that 117 people have died so far in the worst-affected German region of the Rhineland-Baltinate; 46 in the neighboring state of North Rhine-Westphalia; And at least one in Bavaria, with heavy rain and flooding over the weekend. At least 31 people have died in Belgium.
Rain was forecast to cause small rivers to swell in the middle of last week, but catastrophic warnings did not appear to have led to many on the ground – mostly at midnight.
“Once we are at the forefront of providing immediate assistance, we need to see if there are things that are not going right, if there are things that are wrong, and then they need to be fixed,” Economic Minister Peter Altmeyer told the Bild News. “It’s not about pointing fingers – it’s about improvements for the future.”
Federal and state officials have faced criticism from opposition politicians for allegedly failing to warn citizens about the impending disaster ahead of a national election in September. But Interior Minister Horst Seehofer denied that federal officials had made a mistake and said warnings had been sent to local officials who would “make decisions on disaster safety.”
“I have to say that some of the things I hear now are cheap election rhetoric,” Seahofer said during a visit to the Steinbaugh Reservoir in West Germany, where officials said they would not fear a dam breach on Monday. “Now it really isn’t.”
The head of Germany’s Civil Defense said the country’s weather service was “relatively well predicted” and that the country was well prepared for flooding on its major rivers.
But Armin Schuster told ZDF TV late Sunday, “Half an hour ago, it was impossible to say how much of any area would be affected by any amount.” He said 150 warning notices had been sent through applications and media.
“We need to investigate” where the sirens sounded and where they were not, he said.
Authorities in the Rhineland-Palatinate state of Germany said they were well prepared for the flood and that municipalities were being warned and acting.
But state Interior Minister Roger Lewands, after visiting the village of Schultz with President Angela Merkel on Sunday, said, “We certainly had a problem with the technical infrastructure – electricity and so on – being destroyed at the same time.”
Local officials “tried to act quickly,” he said. “But this is the eruption of water in moments. … You may have the best arrangements and alarm conditions (but) if the alarm equipment is destroyed and taken away with the buildings, it is a very difficult situation.” Cellphone networks were also hit by the flood.
After a nationwide test last September, there were already widespread questions about Germany’s emergency warning system, which, for the first time in 30 years, has largely failed. The sirens did not sound in many places, or were removed after the end of the Cold War, and the push alarms from the National Alert application were delayed or not at all.
Schuster, head of the Civil Defense Organization, launched a plan earlier this year to reform civil defense, including encouraging local authorities to install more sirens. The text message system for disaster warnings does not exist in Germany, but Schuster told Deutschlandfunk Radio that it was exploring the possibility.
As local communities contemplate the enormous task of rebuilding infrastructure such as smashed houses and water systems, President Angela Merkel’s cabinet is set to be painted Wednesday Immediate and Medium Term Financial Assistance Package.
In the Steinbaugh Reservoir, North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Armin Lashet said the dam was designed to be at risk once every 10,000 years.
“It has been high for the past few days,” he told reporters. “No one is likely to have predicted this.”
Frank Jordans from the Steinbaugh Reservoir in Germany contributed to this report.