‘Things didn’t go optimally’: Germany’s disaster chief admits mistakes in flood warning system

'Things didn't go optimally': Germany's disaster chief admits mistakes in flood warning system
A Bundeswehr rescue boat in Rech, Rhineland-Palatinate on July 20th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey
Germany is to look at new measures to warn residents about dangerous situations after the disaster management chief admitted things didn't go as well as they could have in the flooding catastrophe.

A week after floods hit western regions claiming the lives of more than 170 people and destroying towns and infrastructure, German authorities are facing tough questions over disaster warning system. 

Critics say the government did not do enough to warn residents about the floods despite being alerted on July 10th to the possibility of catastrophic weather by the European flood service EFAS.

Germany’s civil protection and disaster management system is mainly controlled at the state and district level. But the flood disaster has exposed blind spots.

READ ALSO: Why Germany faces tough questions over disaster response

Now Armin Schuster, the head of the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK), has admitted things didn’t go “optimally”.

“The tragedy is beyond words,” Schuster told ARD’s Morgenmagazin on Thursday, adding that things “didn’t go optimally”.

On the subject of flood warnings, Schuster added that “incredibly many” people played a role in the reporting chain.

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“My office has a lot of expertise and little jurisdiction. We only push the warning button in the event of war,” Schuster emphasised, referring to the fact that the federal government is only responsible for civil protection in the event of defence. “Otherwise, we make our system available to the states and municipalities and they use it. That works, too.”

The question now is how to improve the warning system, he said. Schuster mentioned introducing more sirens and digital warnings that would be sent out to everyone affected via text message – so-called ‘cell broadcasting’. 

READ ALSO: Germany approves €400 million relief package for flood victims

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

For digital alerts, Germany relies on various mobile phone apps – such as NINA and Katwarn – to warn or inform people about important incidents, disasters and dangerous situations, as well as severe weather. But people have to download the apps to be warned. 

Schuster said Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) has decided that warnings will be directly sent to residents in future via cell broadcasting.

“The issue of sirens, cell broadcasting, is guaranteed to have an impact in the next two or three years,” Schuster said.

READ ALSO: Rebuilding Germany’s flood-ravaged areas ‘will take years’

Germany has so far chosen not to base its widespread digital emergency alerts on this SMS system, unlike other countries such as the Netherlands, Greece, Romania, Italy, or the USA.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and BKK chief Armin Schuster in Bad Neuenahr on July 19th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer said earlier this week that politicians hadn’t put this system in place due to data protection (Datenschutz) concerns.

“I am in favour of having these push messages reach citizens via mobile phone providers as well,” the CSU politician told Bild. “But that has always failed because the political will has been lacking in some places.”

READ ALSO: Why weren’t all residents of Germany’s flood zones alerted via text?

Centralised response?

The disaster has also raised questions over how large a role the federal government should play in extreme weather situations. The central government only steps in when the district or state declares a state of emergency. 

However, Interior Minister Seehofer pushed back against this idea, saying local knowledge is needed. 

“It would be completely inconceivable for such a catastrophe to be managed centrally from any one place,” he said. “You need local knowledge.”

German opposition parties have also called for Seehofer to resign due to alleged failings in the country’s disaster response. 

Michael Theurer, deputy parliamentary chairman of the centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP), said the events “paint a picture of a considerable system failure for which the Federal Minister of the Interior Seehofer bears direct personal responsibility”.

Seehofer hit back saying local authorities needed to take greater responsibility and that the criticism was just “very cheap election rhetoric”.

The disaster has also put climate change at the top of the agenda in Germany ahead of the elections on September 26th. 

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  1. The SMS emergency system was deployed in Canada. It’s a total disaster of incompetence. Police have no understanding on how to use it, 90% of people ignore it. To be effective, it needs serious discipline. I can believe that Bundespolizei might be able to cope while the OPP can’t, but then…

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