Volunteer army rebuilds Germany’s flood-stricken towns

In the wreckage left behind by devastating floods in western Germany, a growing number of volunteers is helping residents to rebuild.

Volunteer army rebuilds Germany's flood-stricken towns
Volunteer Rebekka, 22, works in an elementary school in Dernau, western Germany, on August 31th, 2021, weeks after heavy rain and floods caused major damage in the Ahr region. Photo: Yann Schreiber / AFP

Instead of the shouts of noisy children, the halls of the primary school in the German town of Dernau are
filled with the deafening sound of a dozen drills.

The workers on site are an army of unpaid volunteers who have taken on the colossal task of rebuilding towns that were devastated by deadly floods in western Germany seven weeks ago that washed away homes, offices and infrastructure.

Some are locals, or helpers at public organisations like the Red Cross or the fire brigade, but many others have travelled in from across the country, helping to clear up debris by day and sleeping in makeshift camps by night.

READ ALSO: Donkey-rescuing football star Havertz raises thousands for German flood victims

Although the government has pledged 30 billion euros ($35 billion) to fund the reconstruction work, residents say most of the help they receive comes from private people like the volunteers in Dernau.

With less than a month to go before general elections, politicians are “having a mud fight, but the real mud fight is here — and they’re not,” says one volunteer, Christine Jahn.

Before the floods, Dernau was a picturesque town, framed by steep valley slopes covered in vineyards. Today, entire streets in the worst-hit areas are no longer inhabitable.

Whole streets have disappeared in the once-picturesque town of Dernau. Photo: INA FASSBENDER / AFP

The school can no longer be used either: its pupils are now taking their classes elsewhere.

Inside the school, volunteers are working to strip flood-damaged walls, chipping away at a mural painted by the schoolchildren depicting the globe.

Two of those on site are Rebekka, 22, and her mother Judith, 52, who are working at the site together for the first time this week.

The end of the summer holidays in Germany has seen the number of volunteers ebb, but with more time to spare now her university exams are over, “I can still do my bit,” Rebekka says.

Volunteers are essential to the clear-up, says Judith. “It’s just faster to come here and get it done.”

‘Less babbling please’

The mustering point for the volunteers is a short drive outside Dernau, in the shadow of a hulking factory of confectionary company Haribo.

Some volunteers sleep here in tents and are provided with food, water, and the equipment they need to work in the flooded towns.

Jahn, 66, is in her last week at the camp, having come hundreds of miles from the east of Germany soon after the disaster struck.

A former construction worker, she started off “clearing mud” and “digging” wine bottles out of flooded cellars.

Helpers have complained that politicians have been too slow to act. Photo: Yann Schreiber / AFP

“I met some young people in the first three days and after that we always agreed to meet up each morning,” Jahn says.

Now she is seeing to it that volunteers are well provided for, making coffee and sandwiches for hundreds.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will on Friday visit the flood-stricken region for the second time.

READ ALSO: ‘National solidarity’: Germany earmarks €30 billion to rebuild after deadly floods

But concrete help from politicians has been slow to arrive, according to Jahn.

“I want less babbling and more getting on with it, so that the money arrives without bureaucracy.”

‘Our institutions failed’

At the town’s former train station, a quaint building with red-lacquered timber beams, another volunteer, Daniel, was taking delivery of bottles of water.

The station has been turned into a supplies shop called “Tante Emma” (“Auntie Emma’s”) that is stocked by donations, providing food, essentials and tools to local residents to help them repair their lives.

The shop entrance is piled high with nails, screws, and bottles of water behind a makeshift petrol pump.

One of several to manage the store, Daniel had come to the area with friends five weeks ago and decided to stay.

“I have a new contract in a hospital from December 1th, but until then I have time,” says the 29-year-old careworker.

“Without volunteers nothing here would work,” says Daniel, “our institutions have completely failed.”

Volunteers stand in front of Tante Emma, a store offering free daily essentials to displaced residents in the wine village of Dernau. Photo: INA FASSBENDER / AFP

“The longer ago the floods were, the more we need help,” he says, urging more people to provide support.

Marita, 78, a resident of Dernau forced to leave by the disaster, says: “We don’t get much from the state.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How you can support victims of the German flood tragedy

“Most of it comes from private people and donations,” she says.

While her house is being repaired, Marita has moved in with her daughter two hours away in Mainz.

She plans to move back one day. “This is where our friends are, where we grew up and we’ll continue living here.”

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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