Germany questions warning system after flood catastrophe

As Germany mourns more than 150 people who died in floods and begins a mammoth clean-up task, questions are mounting about whether the country's weather warning system failed to keep citizens safe.

Germany questions warning system after flood catastrophe
The town of Bad Neuenahr was devastated in the floods. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

Although meteorological services had forecast torrential rain and flash floods for western Germany last week, many residents said they were caught off-guard by rapidly rising waters that destroyed roads, bridges and homes.

“We shouldn’t be mourning this many fatalities in 2021,” Hannah Cloke, a professor of hydrology at Reading University, told German broadcaster ZDF.

There had been “breaks in the warning chain” somewhere along the way, she said, and messages to evacuate or shelter in place on higher floors did not get through to enough people.

Under Germany’s federal system, it is up to the 16 regional states to organise responses to flood alerts and coordinate efforts with the civil protection office and the fire brigade.

Many local authorities use sirens, loudspeaker announcements or radio and TV bulletins to warn residents of acute danger or issue evacuation orders.

There are also smartphone apps to keep users up to date on extreme weather in their area.

But Bild newspaper condemned the “failure” to take early action in the battered states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North-Rhine Westphalia.

“The sirens stayed quiet in plenty of places, very few alerts were issued,” it wrote, labelling the deadly flooding that followed “a disaster for civil protection, one of the state’s most essential jobs”.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Merkel sees ‘surreal’ wreckage as Europe flood death tolls top 180

Angela Merkel in Schuld on Saturday surveying the damage and talking to the community. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/POOL AFP | Christof Stache

 ‘Too late’

Gregor Degen, a baker in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Rhineland-Palatinate, where the swollen Ahr river did some of the biggest damage, was among those caught by surprise last Wednesday evening.

“We’d heard weather reports of heavy rainfall and seen the odd picture of a flooded street in the region, but no one could imagine anything like this,” he told AFP.

“I saw a short alert but by then it was too late,” he said, recalling water quickly rising to a level of 2.5 metres (eight feet) in his home. “There was nothing you could do.”

Malu Dreyer, the state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, surveyed the devastation in the nearby town of Schuld on Sunday and insisted that communities had heeded the weather warnings and “had all activated their flood defence systems”, including sirens in certain areas.

But she acknowledged that downed power lines and mobile phone outages had complicated efforts to reach everyone.

READ ALSO: Why have the floods in Europe been so deadly?

Gerd Landsberg, head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, called for an overhaul of the early warning system.

“People had the impression that it was just heavy rain, the dramatic scale of it was not clearly communicated,” he told the Funke newspaper group.

He called for more staff and more competencies for the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BKK), and said the siren system should be used more widely so people can receive messages even when the electricity is out.

Minister for Research Anja Karliczek said Germany must prepare better for natural disasters, expected to become more frequent because of climate change.

“One of the lessons of this catastrophe in western Germany is that we must improve our research into these extreme weather episodes in the next few years,” she said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited the flood zone in Rhineland-Palatinate on Sunday, said lessons should be learnt but cautioned against overly high expectations.

“Of course we ask ourselves what can be done better?” she said. “But in some situations things happen so quickly that you can’t fully escape the force of nature.”

READ ALSO: How the extreme flooding in Germany is linked to global warming

By Marion PAYET with Yacine LE FORESTIER in Berlin

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What temperatures can we expect in Germany this week?

Parts of Germany will see another heatwave this week as temperatures soar.

What temperatures can we expect in Germany this week?

The German Weather Service (DWD) has predicted that the mercury will climb in some regions of to around 34C this week. 

“After low pressure ‘Karin’ gave parts of Germany rain, sometimes in large quantities, high pressure ‘Piet’ is now back in pole position,” said meteorologist Lars Kirchhübel of the DWD.

This high pressure zone will dominate the weather in large parts of western and central Europe over the coming days, the weather expert said, adding that it will reach Germany too. 

On Monday temperatures remained fairly cool across the country after a weekend of showers, but they are set to climb over the course of the week, particularly on Wednesday and Thursday. Forecasters predict it could reach 32C in Stuttgart and 33C in Cologne on Thursday. Locally, temperatures could reach 34C. 

However, from the Oder and Neisse rivers to the Erzgebirge mountains and southeast Bavaria, denser clouds and some showers are to be expected. This is due to a high-level low pressure system over the Balkan region, according to forecasters. Short showers are also possible in the Black Forest.

“In most of the rest of the country, high ‘Piet’ will be able to hold its ground,” said Kirchhübel.

READ ALSO: Heavy rain in Bavaria swells rivers, but flooding avoided

At the end of the week, thunderstorms are forecast but temperatures are expected to remain high. 

August in Germany ‘too dry’

According to the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, August as a whole – apart from a few areas in eastern Germany – will be too dry compared to the multi-year average.

The Black Forest, the High Rhine and the Allgäu to the Bavarian Forest, however, are not expected to have any major problems due to the high rainfall of the past few days.

“Looking at Rhineland-Palatinate, the southern half of Hesse, the western half of North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Franconia shows a different picture,” said Kirchhübel. In the last 30 days, only about 10 percent of the usual level of precipitation fell in some places.

“At some stations, no precipitation at all has been measured in August,” added Kirchhübel, referencing Würzburg as an example.

Rainfall at the weekend caused the water in the Rhine river to rise slightly. In Emmerich, the water level reached a positive value again after the historic low of the past few days: in the morning, it showed three centimetres – an increase of six centimetres compared to the previous day.

The water level also rose by several centimetres at the other measuring points in North Rhine-Westphalia: in Cologne, the level rose to 80cm and in Düsseldorf to 38cm.

READ ALSO: Damaged freighter blocks traffic at drought-hit Rhine

Despite this encouraging trend, the Waterways and Shipping Authority said it did not expect a huge improvement in water levels in the foreseeable future due to more hot weather coming.