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FLOODS

‘We’re full’: German waste centres tackle mountains of post-flood debris

Near the villages devastated by historic floods in Germany last month, waste centres are struggling to sort a pile equivalent to a whole year's worth of refuse.

'We're full': German waste centres tackle mountains of post-flood debris
A mountain of waste lies piled up on August 2nd in the aftermath of Germany's disastrous floods. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

“There’s not been anything like it in Germany,” Sascha Hurtenbach, director of the waste management centre in Niederzissen, tells AFP, while behind him diggers work to reduce the size of the mounds of debris.

“At the moment, we have about 35,000 tonnes of waste taken from the disaster zone here, and we’ve already taken the same amount to a landfill.

“There’s still a lot of debris sitting there.”

The waste site in Niederzissen sits about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Ahr valley, where, on the night of July 14th, the river burst its banks and the waters turned into a torrent.

The villages along the Ahr, a tributary of the Rhine, were ravaged by the high waters and dozens of residents died.

READ ALSO: More heavy rain forecast for flood-hit west of Germany

Along the roads that lead to the valley, the mud has turned to dust and convoys of dump trucks have replaced the tourists that used to come here to enjoy the once picturesque surroundings.

‘I don’t know how long we can last’

The remains of a broken life — washing machines, dishwashers, sofas, fridges, chairs — are piled one on top of another in the centre at Niederzissen. They bear witness to the size of the catastrophe that left at least 186 people dead in the west of Germany.

“We’re full,” says Hurtenbach. “We can no longer accept any more than what leaves during the day.”

At the peak of the clean-up operation, a lorry was arriving at the site in Niederzissen every minute.

READ ALSO: UPDATE: German prosecutors consider manslaughter probe into deadly floods

And yet, what they have sorted so far is just the start. Construction materials, tree trunks and branches are still waiting to be taken away outside the houses affected by the floods.

About 170 workers have been deployed to try to clear it all, more than four times the normal staffing.

The site itself is operating seven days a week, but it is constrained by the availability of lorries to take waste on to landfill sites or specialised recycling centres.

“I don’t know how long we can last,” Hurtenbach says.

Of the 130,000 residents his centre provides services for, only 30,000 have been directly affected by the floods.

“For the others, we still need to empty their bins and pick up their waste as normal.”

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FLOODS

Merkel tours German flood zone to drum up party support

German Chancellor Angela Merkel returned Friday to the scene of deadly flooding in the west of the country in a bid to shore up support for her embattled party before this month's national election.

Merkel tours German flood zone to drum up party support
German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to residents of flood hit Altenahr-Altenburg on Friday. Photo: dpa/Pool AP | Markus Schreiber

Since the July disaster put crisis management and climate change back at the top of the agenda, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their unpopular candidate, Armin Laschet, have been haemorrhaging support.

With the September 26 vote fast approaching, the outgoing Merkel checked in on the flood-stricken village of Altenahr in Rhineland-Palatinate state, and will view two inundated towns in Laschet’s own neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia on Sunday.

READ ALSO: Conservative contender to succeed Merkel goes on attack in TV debate

After touring the rubble-strewn roads of Altenahr where the vast majority of homes are still uninhabitable, Merkel acknowledged residents’ trauma.

“When you are here you get a small sense of the mortal fear many people had in the night of the flooding, who had to wait it out on top of or under their roofs,” she said.

“We will not forget you, and the next government will pick up where we left off” to ensure public aid reaches the victims, she pledged.

Merkel, who will retire from politics when a new government is in place, made a well-received visit in the immediate aftermath of the deluge, offering empathy and billions in federal aid to rebuild ravaged infrastructure.

The appearance stood in marked contrast with a politically calamitous stop by Laschet in what is now widely seen as a fateful moment in the erstwhile frontrunner’s campaign.

As President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a sombre speech mourning the floods’ 181 victims, the CDU leader was caught on camera behind him joking and laughing with local officials.

‘Put his foot in it’

The two appearances gave voters a chance to directly compare the luckless Laschet with Merkel, political scientist Ursula Muench told AFP.

“Merkel went there and listened and had the right expression and the right gestures and Laschet managed to put his foot in it,” said Muench, director of the Academy for Political Education near Munich.

She noted that after Merkel’s 16 years in office, her shadow looms large over the race — particularly as Laschet’s chief rival, Social Democratic Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, also tries to present himself as her rightful heir.

READ ALSO: Merkel says ‘huge difference’ between her and vice-Chancellor Scholz

His party is now polling at around 25 percent, four points up on Laschet’s conservatives.

The Christian Democrats are now encouraging as many joint appearances as possible between Merkel and Laschet, who will accompany her on Sunday.

However the visit carries some political risk as emotions are still running high in the stricken region.

In the village of Dernau, where entire streets are still uninhabitable, clean-up volunteer Christine Jahn complained this week about red tape holding up tranches of a pledged 30 billion euros ($36 billion) in federal and state aid.


In flood-ravaged western Germany, volunteers have stepped in where the government has been slow to act. Photo: Yann Schreiber / AFP

“I want less babbling and more getting on with it, so that the money arrives without bureaucracy,” the 66-year-old told AFP.

READ ALSO: Conservative contender to succeed Merkel goes on attack in TV debate

Public anger has also focused on a failure to sufficiently warn vulnerable residents or rush them to safety before the waters surged through their community.

Prosecutors in August launched a criminal investigation against the district chief of hard-hit Ahrweiler for negligence as warnings were made belatedly, resulting in the deaths of dozens of residents.

Flippant response?

The catastrophe also renewed the focus on climate change, which 80 percent of Germans say they want more political action to mitigate, according to a poll for broadcaster RTL published on Wednesday.

A major international study last month found that manmade global warming made the deadly floods in Germany as well as Belgium up to nine times more likely.

In the Ahr and Erft regions of Germany, 93 millimetres (3.6 inches) of rain fell in a single day at the height of the crisis.

In the immediate aftermath, Laschet drew criticism for seemingly contradictory statements in a TV interview on the urgency of addressing the climate crisis.


Laschet’s party has taken a hammering in the polls since footage taken on July 17th showed him laughing in the flood zones. Photo: Marius Becker / POOL / AFP)

READ ALSO: Conservative’s missteps leave race for Merkel job open in Germany

Asked whether he thought the government had made mistakes on the issue, Laschet said it would be wrong to “change policies just because of one day” in what sounded to many critics like a flippant response to the disaster.

All eyes will now be on Laschet, whose CDU has shed around 13 points in support since he became party leader in January and is still on a downward slide, to see whether he can find his footing again before election day.

By Deborah Cole

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