Why have so many died in the German floods?

A huge rescue operation is continuing in Germany as western regions see the worst floods in living memory. We looked at why the situation is so severe.

Why have so many died in the German floods?
The village of Schuld has been virtually destroyed. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lino Mirgeler

Towns and villages in western regions of Germany have been destroyed after torrential rain caused flooding and rivers to burst their banks. 

German emergency workers are continuing to search for missing people in the worst-affected regions in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

With more than 100 people confirmed to have died – and the death toll rising – the scale of the flooding disaster is unusual for European countries. We examined how the catastrophe unfolded and why there could be so many casualties. 

Keep in mind that this is a developing situation and things may change.  

LATEST: More than 100 dead after flooding disaster in western Germany

How did it unfold?

Torrential downpours began in parts of Germany on Tuesday, resulting in flash floods. Firefighters were already pumping out water from basements across Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) at this time.

The German Weather Service had issued its most severe weather warning possible between Eifel and the Mosel Valley in NRW and Rhineland-Palatinate due to the extremely heavy continuous rain.

But no one expected the situation to deteriorate the way it did. Some parts of western Europe received up to two months’ worth of rainfall in two days on soil that was already near saturation, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

The heavy rain on Wednesday night caused more flooding and rivers to break their banks.

Houses, cars and infrastructure became submerged in water and destroyed. Six houses collapsed in Schuld, Rhineland-Palatinate, a village with 700 people. 

Desperate residents sought refuge on the roofs of their homes as rescue helicopters circled above.

Residents said the sheer force of the water was unstoppable, meaning that people had very little time to try and get to safety. 

When the water came, Schuld resident Peter Ohlert put documents and essentials in a box on Wednesday night, got into the car and drove up the slope.

“I only had 20 minutes, it went that fast,” he told Editorial Network Germany. The whole night he watched helplessly from a safe height.

Now his house is almost destroyed – the water has pushed out the windows, with muddy curtains left hanging. But people are just thankful to be alive.

Sebastian Heinrich, deputy fire chief of Schuld, who was on duty on Wednesday night and Thursday said: “That was sheer horror. It’s not something you ever want to experience.”

“Everything was under water within 15 minutes,” Agron Berischa, a 21-year-old decorator from Bad Neuenahr in Rhineland-Palatinate state, told AFP.

“Our flat, our office, our neighbours’ houses, everywhere was under water.”

In North Rhine-Westphalia, the speed of the floods also took people by surprise. 

Devastation in Erftstadt, NRW. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

In Schuld, Hans-Dieter Vrancken, 65, told AFP “caravans, cars were washed away, trees were uprooted, houses were knocked down”.

“We have lived here in Schuld for over 20 years and we have never experienced anything like it. It’s like a warzone,” he said.

Sebastian Kiefer in Hagen, NRW, told broadcaster WDR: “It’s madness when you think about the force behind the water and everything it washed away.”

The floods have resulted in more than 100 people losing their lives. 

Several bodies were found in basements during rescue operations.

WDR said that people often go to the basement when there’s flooding to see if they can protect their home by keeping the water out using buckets, or to rescue some of their belongings. However, the deluge of water means that is extremely dangerous. 

Roger Lewentz, interior minister for Rheinland-Palatinate, told German newspaper Bild the death toll was likely to rise as emergency services continued to search the affected areas over the coming days.

“When emptying cellars or pumping out cellars, we keep coming across people who have lost their lives in these floods,” he said.

Emergency workers have been struggling to save people in shaky buildings over the last days. At least two firefighters are reported to have died while working in the towns of Altena and Werdohl in NRW. 

“I’m actually still at a loss for words,” a woman in Lasbeck in the Sauerland region told WDR, where she described masses of water coming down a road at high speed.

“It’s a shock for everyone.” It’s “all still very unreal,” she said.

In Iserlohn, a woman told WDR on Wednesday that dozens of people had to leave their homes on Wednesday night and were given shelter in a gymnasium.

“Some of them left their pets upstairs (in their homes) inside, because we did not know how long we would be there”, she said, adding that people were crying.

Why was there so much rain – and why were areas not prepared for the situation?

Meteorologist Sven Plöger, told Tagesspiegel the heavy rain was caused by a low-pressure area that has been moving over Germany.

He said extreme rainfall has a massive impact on areas in different ways. 

“The heavier it rains, the more difficult it is for small streams, rivers or the sewage systems to drain off the water,” he said. “It becomes especially dangerous when there are narrow places due to a valley or construction sites and the water has to flow through there.

“This is when the Bernoulli or jet effect kicks in, which in simple terms means “the narrower the faster”. This then leads to torrential and destructive floods of water.

“Especially in mountainous regions such as the Eifel, the water mass is also accelerated by the slope and mudslides can also be triggered. In the lowlands, on the other hand, larger areas flood for a long time, making them unusable and a source of danger.”

The scale of the emergency has even shocked scientists. 

Dieter Gerten, professor of global change climatology and hydrology at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told The Guardian that he grew up in a village in the affected area. He said it occasionally flooded, but not like this.

“This week’s event is totally untypical for that region,” he said.

Although many municipalities have been evacuated, should this have happened sooner? Are areas simply not equipped to deal with the flooding? What else could have been done to save lives?

These questions will need to be addressed by German authorities in the coming days as the country comes to terms with the scale of the disaster. 

Is climate change to blame?

Experts say the disaster is linked to climate change. This issue is back at the centre of Germany’s election campaign ahead of the federal election on September 26th.

Germany “must prepare much better” in future, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said, adding that “this extreme weather is a consequence of climate change”.

Scientists say that because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, climate change increases the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.

In urban areas with poor drainage and buildings located in flood zones, the damage can be severe.

Deputy Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said: “This is a natural disaster but the fact it’s taken place in this way is certainly connected to the fact climate change is progressing at a speed we’ve observed for a while.

“That must be another incentive and also an obligation for those who’ve become victims here for us to avoid man made climate change and prevent such disasters at this scale.”

Rhineland-Palatinate’s state premier Malu Dreyer (SPD) said: “Anyone who has not yet understood that climate change has its consequences is beyond help.”

Speaking in Berlin on Friday, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Germany would “only be able to curb extreme weather situations if we engage in a determined fight against climate change”.

How are people being supported?

The federal and state governments have pledged to do whatever it takes to assist people and rebuild after the destruction. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised aid to those affected, and the North Rhine-Westphalia state cabinet was set to discuss the matter in a special session this Friday.

Rhineland-Palatinate has already made €50 million available as short-term support to repair damage to roads, bridges and other structures. In the flooded areas, clean-up and recovery operations continued on Friday.

Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer (CSU) and Minister for Agriculture Julia Klöckner (CDU) have both said that those who have lost their belongings in the flood will be given financial aid quickly and unbureaucratically.

“These are great tragedies, they can hardly be put into words,” explained Klöckner, who is also the CDU chairwoman for Rhineland-Palatinate. “The federal government will be at the side of those affected with all the means at its disposal.”

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‘Clear indication of climate change’: Germany logs warmest year on record

Looking at data from 2,000 measuring systems around Germany, the German Weather Service (DWD) said that 2022 marked the warmest year on record through November.

'Clear indication of climate change': Germany logs warmest year on record

“Never since 1881 has the period from January to November in Germany been so warm as in 2022,” said DWD spokesman Uwe Kirsche in a statement on Wednesday.

The average temperature for the first eleven months of 2022 was 11.3C, according to the weather service in Offenbach. The previous high was set in 2020, at 11.1C for this period. 

The temperature average for autumn alone was 10.8 degrees – an entire 2C degrees higher than it was between 1961 to 1990, which is used by meteorologists around the globe as a point of reference. 

Clear indication of climate change

The period from January to October was already the warmest on record, with an average temperature of 11.8C. For meteorologists, autumn ends with November, whereas in calendar terms, it lasts until December 21st. 

It is “a clear indication of climate change;” that the warmest October months of the last 140 years all fall in this millennium, said DWD.

READ ALSO: ‘A glimpse into our climate future’: Germany logs warmest October on record

Autumn 2022 could have easily been mistaken for summer in some regions of Germany, it said. The mercury reached the highest in Kleve on the Lower Rhine on September 5th, where temperatures soared to a sizzling 32.3C.

weather Germany september

Beach goers in Westerland, Schleswig-Holstein on September 25th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Molter

Rainy regions

The mild weather extended into November, before temperatures took a dramatic dip in many parts of the country. 

In the Oberharz am Brocken, the mercury dropped all the way to -11.6C on November 20th, the nationwide low for this autumn.

READ ALSO: Germany to see first snowfall after mild November

But despite the early warm spells, autumn was also “slightly wetter than average,” according to DWD. An average of around 205 liters of precipitation per squar metre fell across Germany.

That was about twelve percent more than in the reference period from 1961 to 1990. Compared to 1991 to 2020, the increase was about eight percent.

The Black Forest and the Alps received the most rainfall. Utzenfeld in the southern Black Forest had the highest daily precipitation in Germany with 86 litres per square meter on October 14th. In contrast, it remained very dry in the northeast. 

However, there were also a fair few bright, sunny days for people to enjoy. According to DWD, the sun shone for a good 370 hours this autumn – almost 20 percent more than in the period from 1961 to 1990 and 15 percent more than in the period from 1991 to 2020.

The North German Lowlands saw the most sun, with residents there getting a solid 400 hours of sunshine over autumn. 

Temperatures to drop this week

Just in time for the start of the meteorological winter on December 1st, temperatures will drop significantly into the low negatives in many parts of the country.

On the weekend, there is a risk of permafrost in some regions of eastern Germany. The nights will also become increasingly frosty, with snow expected in many regions by the end of the week.

Roads are expected to turn icy, but with no major snowstorms, said DWD.

READ ALSO: Will Germany see more snow this winter?