Sunday, December 5

‘I know a lot of people who don’t want to go back’: how floods threaten empty German cities


“My father, my grandfather… my whole family… we were born, we work and we live here. This is the situation of the majority of the people in this area ”.

Gerd Baltes, a 69-year-old German, explains his deep roots in his hometown, Mayschoß, in the Ahr Valley of western Germany.

It is one of the areas hardest hit by the floods that struck in July, a flood that has destroyed swaths of Germany near the borders with Belgium and the Netherlands.

A retired police officer, these days Baltes works on a crisis team, helping his neighbors rescue their homes from the destruction left behind by what is known in Germany as the ‘flood of the century’.

Of the 180 people who died in the country amid record floods, 133 were residents of this wine-growing valley close to the cities of Bonn and Cologne, a tourist destination crossed by a tributary of the River Rhine.

“This valley is basically the dream of the middle class,” explains Wilhem Schulz, whose family lives in the valley, in the Ahrweiler district.

“There are a lot of people with enough money to retire here debt-free in the houses they built for themselves.”

But that was before what happened on July 15. “Now everything is destroyed,” says Schulz, recounting the damage to hotels, restaurants and all kinds of infrastructure and services that made life in the valley possible.

The cost of the damages is estimated at more than 3.7 million euros.

When the water began to rise, Schulz was trapped at night in his sister’s house.

From there he saw how the water surrounded them, shaking the walls, with the cars floating and the trees falling in front of the windows.

They were not prepared for this type of situation, nor were they rescued.

“We waited until four in the afternoon the next day without seeing or hearing anything,” he recalls. “Nobody told us that the flood would be that bad. Nobody told us about a rescue plan. “

Like Schulz, the flooding took the rest of the neighborhood by surprise.

The prosecution has filed a lawsuit against the local Ahrweiler authorities for negligent manslaughter after 12 disabled people drowned in a residence in the town of Sinzig.

They are accused of failing to warn of danger and failing to evacuate.

The unpredictable nature of the effects of climate change, according to Fred Hattermann, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), is causing cases like this where it is difficult to forecast rainfall levels.

“The number of extreme events is growing,” he says.

“A warmer atmosphere has more capacity to absorb water, retain it, transport it through central, southern and northern Europe, and then there is a greater chance that the rains will be more frequent and intense.”

In addition, previous rains had weakened the soil’s ability to absorb more water.

“It rained for almost two days without stopping,” recalls Karsten Haustein, a scientist and meteorologist at the German Climate Service Center.

“Now imagine a valley like the Ahr, where water cannot flow.”

“How are you going to know about these risks if no one has told you about them?”

A study published by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) international group of climate scientists in August concluded that climate change was a critical factor in the floods.

Haustein explains that its role in increasing rainfall between 19% and 30% has been scientifically proven.

“These floods have shown us that even developed countries are not safe from the impacts of the extreme weather we have seen and that they will get worse as the climate changes,” wrote Friederike Otto, a climatologist at the Institute of Environmental Change at the University of Oxford. . and co-author of the study.

Another issue to highlight due to the flooding in the Ahr Valley is construction in areas with high risk of flooding.

“We always think that it can’t happen here, and therefore this is the result,” argues Haustein. “

However, the scientist does not believe that the responsibility lies with the citizens, but with the authorities.

“In the past, they said that if you lived in a river valley, you had to be aware of the risks, but to be honest with you, if you don’t understand the weather, the climate or the science, how are you? Will you know what these risks are if no one has told you?

“If even the people who sell you the house or allow you to build your house there don’t tell you? How are you supposed to know?

“That is why we cannot blame the people, but they are the ones who make the decisions, that plan, because they had to know it. They have to know that it is their responsibility ”.

This is also where private insurance comes into play, which is playing a key role in advancing climate change.

In some regions of Germany with high risk of floods, such as Bavaria, where in 2019 a new law established that the government would not give financial assistance to those homes that were not insured, except in exceptional circumstances.

This is not yet the case in Ahr Valley, where Baltes estimates that most of his neighbors have not insured their properties: “You need special insurance. You need two insurance. One, homeowners insurance, then another for everything inside. I would say that 80% of the people here do not have it ”.

‘I know a lot of people who don’t want to go back’

The flood surprised the political life of Germany, in the middle of an electoral campaign.

The government has promised € 30 billion for reconstruction, but older residents worry they won’t live to see their communities go back to the way they were before the flood.

This is the case with Wilhem Schulz’s uncle and grandmother. They don’t want to spend their last years worrying about rebuilding their homes in an area with devastated infrastructure.

“My grandmother lived in the center of the city and her apartment was quite high,” explains Schulz. “It was not destroyed, but everything around it is devastated. All the shops, the restaurants, everything that made the valley habitable for someone like her who is older. “

Schulz believes that “realistically” it will take at least a year for the place to recover.

The other group of people who do not want to return to the valley are those who were too traumatized by the crisis. The authorities have provided the support of a psychologist to the inhabitants, but, for many, knowing that their neighbors died trapped by water in houses near them, has left too strong an impact.

“I know a lot of people who don’t want to go back,” Schulz said. “Their stories are very traumatic. People who have seen their neighbor’s house swept away by the current, and nothing has changed, there is no reconstruction underway ”.

Baltes is also sadly aware that between 5% and 10% of the inhabitants will leave the community forever.

“A town needs inhabitants. We don’t want to live in a ghost town. And there is a danger that if we cannot put the necessary measures in place for the winter, people will leave our village, ”says Baltes.

When asked if the people of the Ahr Valley have become climate migrants, Baltes points to their deep roots in the area, dating back generations.

But you know that if the weather remains unpredictable, with more rain and more danger, this is a possibility.

“But where will they go?” He asks. “Where can you be safe from climate change?”


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