Like other residents of his town in Germany, Wolfgang Huste knew a flood was coming. What nobody told him, he says, was how bad it would be.
The 66-year-old antiquarian bookseller from Ahrweiler said the first serious warning to evacuate or move to higher floors of buildings close to the Ahr River came through loudspeaker announcements around 8 p.m. on July 14. Huste then heard a short emergency siren blast and church bells ringing, followed by silence.
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“It was spooky, like in a horror film,” he said.
Huste rushed to rescue his car from an underground garage. By the time he parked it on the street, the water stood knee height. Five minutes later, safely indoors, he saw his vehicle floating down the street. He estimates the losses in his store, where books dating back to the early 1500s were destroyed, at more than 200,000 euros ($235,000).
“The warning time was far too short,” Huste said.
With the confirmed death toll from last week’s floods in Germany and neighboring countries passing 210, almost 150 people still missing and the economic cost expected to run into the billions, many have asked why the emergency systems designed to warn people of impending disaster didn’t work.
Sirens in some towns failed when the electricity was cut. In other locations, there were no sirens at all; volunteer firefighters had to knock on people’s doors to tell them what to do. The German weekly Der Spiegel reported that in one suburb of Wuppertal, north of Cologne, people were warned by a monk ringing a bell.
Huste acknowledged that few could have predicted the speed with which the water would rise and rip through towns. But he pointed across the valley to a building that houses Germany’s Federal Office for Civil Protection, where first responders from across the country train for possible disasters.
“In practice, as we just saw, it didn’t work, let’s say, as well as it should,” Huste said. “What the state should have done, it didn’t do. At least not until much later.”
German authorities did receive early warnings from the European Flood Awareness System. These made their way through official channels, putting firefighters on heightened alert as well as smartphone users who had installed disaster warning apps, but such apps aren’t widely used.
Local officials responsible for triggering disaster alarms in the Ahr valley on the first night of flooding have kept a low profile since the deluge. At least 132 people were killed in the Ahr valley alone.
Authorities in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate state took charge of the disaster response in the wake of the floods, but they declined to comment on what mistakes might have been made on the night the disaster struck.
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“People are looking at a life in ruins here. Some have lost relatives, there were many dead,” said Thomas Linnertz, the state official now coordinating the disaster response. “I can understand the anger very well. But on the other hand, I have to say again: This was an event that nobody could have predicted.”
The head of Germany’s federal disaster agency BKK, Armin Schuster, acknowledged to public broadcaster ARD that “things didn’t work as well as they could have.”
His agency is trying to determine how many sirens were removed after the end of the Cold War. Germany also plans to adopt a system known as ‘cell broadcast’ that can send alerts to all cellphones in a particular area.
In the town of Sinzig, Heiko Lemke recalled how firefighters came knocking on doors at 2 a.m., long after the floods had caused severe damage upriver in Ahrweiler.
Despite a heavy flood in 2016, nobody had expected the waters of the Ahr River to rise as high as they did in his community, Lemke said.
“They were evacuating people,” he said. “We were totally confused because we thought that wasn’t possible.”
Within 20 minutes, water had flooded the ground floor of his family’s house, but they decided it was too dangerous to venture out, he said.
“We wouldn’t have managed to make it around the corner,” said his wife, Daniela Lemke.
Twelve residents of a nearby assisted living facility for people with disabilities drowned in the flood. Police are probing whether staff at the facility could have done more to save the residents, but so far there is no suggestion that authorities could face a criminal investigation for failing to issue timely warnings.
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Experts say such floods will become more frequent and severe due to climate change, and countries will need to adapt, including by revising calculations about future flood risks, improving warning systems and preparing people for similar disasters.
Now that he knows about the flood risk, Heiko Lemke hopes all those things will happen.
“But maybe it would be even better to leave,” he added.