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FLOODS

German prosecutors start probe against district official over catastrophic floods

German prosecutors said Friday they have launched an investigation against the district chief of the flood-hit region of Ahrweiler over alleged negligence that resulted in the deaths of dozens of residents.

German prosecutors start probe against district official over catastrophic floods
The town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in the Ahrweiler district was gutted in the floods. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

Some 189 people lost their lives in severe floods that pummelled western Germany in mid-July, raising questions about whether enough was done to warn residents.

Following an initial examination of the case, prosecutors in Koblenz said they have “affirmed the initial suspicion of negligent homicide and negligent bodily harm… and have initiated investigations.”

Ahrweiler district chief Juergen Pföhler is the focus of the probe because he had “sole decision-making authority” and was meant to be in charge of the operation according to current regulations.

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

Another member of the crisis group, who had for at least part of the time taken over the command of the emergency response, was also under investigation, prosecutors said, without naming the suspect.

After reconstructing the events, investigators found that forecasts about the impeding floods should have led officials to sound the warning and evacuate residents living near the swollen Ahr river by 8:30 pm on July 14th.

“This – according to the initial suspicion – was obviously either not carried out, or not carried out with the required clarity or only carried out belatedly, such that it could amount negligence,” said prosecutors.

It took until just after 11:00 pm for evacuation orders and warnings via smartphone apps to reach residents, according to initial findings.

“The main culprit is nature,” Koblenz chief public prosecutor Harald Kruse told a press conference.

“We mustn’t forget that. But even in a case like this it is possible that criminally relevant human behaviour could have contributed to the deaths and injuries of these people.”

Kruse singled out the 12 lives lost at a care facility for the disabled when residents on the ground floor drowned in the flood water.

“At least for these people, we believe an earlier and clearer warning of the danger or an earlier and clearer evacuation order could have saved their lives.”

Delegated

Kruse said investigators had searched the district administration office and seized mobile phones as part of their efforts to piece together which warnings were received when and what action was taken.

Kruse said Pföhler had told prosecutors he had delegated the handling of the crisis to an experienced deputy that night – the unnamed other person targeted in the probe.

Pföhler himself, who belongs to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, was being kept up to date by phone as the flood disaster unfolded.

The Ahrweiler district is located in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate where at least 142 people died in the floods.

Sixteen people are still missing after torrents of water ripped through towns and villages, destroying bridges, roads, railways and  housing in the region’s worst flooding disaster in living memory.

Another 47 people died in the neighbouring state of North-Rhine Westphalia.

German government officials have vowed to learn lessons from the tragedy and improve the country’s disaster warning systems, including through SMS alerts and wider use of sirens.

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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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