The 66-year-old antiquarian bookseller in Ahrweiler said the first serious warning to evacuate or move to higher floors of buildings near the Ahr River came through loudspeaker announcements around 8 pm on July 14. Then, cough heard a short siren of emergency and the church bells ring, followed by silence.
“It was creepy, like in a horror movie,” he said.
Cough rushed to rescue his car from an underground garage. When he parked it on the street, the water was knee-high. Five minutes later, safely inside, he saw his vehicle floating down the street. He would later learn that he also lost books dating back to the early 16th century and estimates his total losses at more than 200,000 euros ($ 235,000).
“The warning time was too short,” Huste said.
With the death toll confirmed from last week’s floods in Germany and neighboring countries topping 210 on Friday and the economic cost expected to run into the billions, others in Germany have asked why the emergency systems designed to warn people of impending disaster did not work. .
Sirens in some cities failed when the power went out. In other places, there were no mermaids at all; volunteer firefighters had to knock on people’s doors to tell them what to do.
Huste acknowledged that few could have predicted the speed at which the water would rise. But he pointed across the valley to a building that houses Germany’s Federal Civil Protection Office, where first responders from across the country train for potential disasters.
“In practice, as we’ve just seen, it didn’t work, let’s say, as well as it should,” Huste said. “What the state should have done, it did not. At least not until much later,” he said.
Local officials who were responsible for setting off disaster alarms in the Ahr Valley on the first night of the floods have kept a low profile in the days after the flood. At least 132 people in the Ahr Valley are alone.
Rhineland-Palatinate state authorities took over the response to the disaster in the wake of the floods, but declined on Friday to comment on mistakes that could have been made on the night of the disaster.
“People are seeing life in shambles here. Some have lost family members, there were many deaths,” said Thomas Linnertz, the state official who now coordinates the disaster response. “I can understand anger very well. But on the other hand, I have to say again: this was an event that no one could have predicted.”
The director of Germany’s federal disaster agency BKK, Armin Schuster, acknowledged to the public broadcaster ARD this week that “things did not work out as well as they could have.”
His agency is trying to determine how many sirens were removed after the end of the Cold War, and the country plans to adopt a system known as ‘cell broadcast’ that can send alerts to all cell phones in a particular area.
In the city of Sinzig, resident Heiko Lemke recalled how firefighters knocked on doors at 2 am, long after floods had caused severe damage upstream in Ahrweiler.
Despite a flood in 2016, no one expected the waters of the Ahr to rise as high as it did in their community last week, Lemke said. (moved this up because otherwise it was unclear what they thought was not possible).
“They were evacuating people,” he said. “We were totally confused because we thought that was not possible.”
Within 20 minutes, the water had flooded the ground floor of her family’s home, but they decided it was too dangerous to venture outside, she said.
“We couldn’t have gotten 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 investigating whether facility staff could have done more to save residents, but so far there is no indication that authorities could face a criminal investigation for failing to issue timely warnings.
Experts say such floods will be more frequent and severe due to climate change, and countries will need to adapt, including revising estimates of future flood risks, improving warning systems and preparing populations for similar disasters.
Now that she knows the risk of flooding, Heiko Lemke hopes those things will happen.
“But maybe it would be better to go,” he said.