Merkel heads to flood zone facing questions over preparedness

by Reuters
Tuesday, 20 July 2021 15:04 GMT

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacts as she addresses a media conference during a visit in flood-stricken Bad Muenstereifel, Germany July 20, 2021. Christof Stache/Pool via REUTERS

Image Caption and Rights Information

The floods killed more than 160 people in Germany, highlighting gaps in how warnings of severe weather are passed on to the public

* Questions raised over warning systems ahead of floods

* Mobile phone systems knocked out, sirens systems in disuse

* Crisis management in focus as national elections approach

* Financial cost of worst disaster in 60 years will be heavy (Adds quotes, detail)

By Holger Hansen

BERLIN, July 20 (Reuters) - German authorities faced a mounting outcry on Tuesday over deadly floods that engulfed large parts of the country last week, catching Europe's richest economy flat-footed in a disaster that had been predicted days earlier.

As Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to the disaster zone for the second time, there were growing questions about how well prepared local and national authorities were for the floods that swept through defenceless towns and villages last week.

"There were warnings about the masses of debris and floodwaters that were rolling towards these people and these warnings were not handled at all in the way such warnings should have been," Julian Reichelt, editor of Bild, Germany's largest circulation newspaper, said in an online panel discussion.

With the country about 10 weeks away from national elections, the floods have put the crisis management skills of Germany's leaders on the agenda as opposition politicians suggested the death toll revealed serious failings in flood preparedness.

"I was very surprised really at the scale of the deaths and destruction because from my point of view it looked like we could forecast this event coming," Hannah Cloke, professor of hydrology at Reading University, said.

The floods killed more than 160 people in Germany, tearing through villages, sweeping away houses, roads and bridges and highlighting gaps in how warnings of severe weather are passed on to the public.

In Germany's decentralised system, responsibility for disaster protection is split between the federal government and regional and local authorities, but officials have rejected suggestions they had done too little to prepare and said warning systems had worked.

The parliamentary domestic affairs committee is due to meet next week to discuss how well the systems functioned.

"We have to look at what worked and what didn't work but we shouldn't forget that this was a flood such as there hasn't been for a very, very long time," Merkel said in Bad Muenstereifel, noting that the mayor of the mediaeval spa town had said that no such flooding had been seen there for 700 years.

Several experts said the unprecedented scale of the floods meant existing defences would inevitably be overwhelmed. But critics pointed to failures in warning sirens that had been allowed to fall into disuse, delayed evacuations as well as patchy mobile phone warning systems whose efficacy was limited due to networks being knocked out.

In a country where many are wary of data sharing due to years of surveillance in the formerly Communist east and under Hitler's Nazi regime, tight privacy rules allow warning messages to be sent only to individuals who have in advance agreed to be notified.

"The good old siren may be more useful than we thought," Merkel said.

COSTS

Almost 20 years since then-centre-left Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won re-election in large part because of his assured response to severe floods in eastern Germany, the disaster has inevitably cast its shadow over the September ballot.

An opinion poll conducted since the flooding began last week showed a slight gain for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party (CDU). But Armin Laschet, the state premier put forward by the party to succeed her as chancellor, has seen his own approval hit after he was filmed laughing as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited one of the flood zones.

The financial cost of Germany's worst natural disaster in almost 60 years will also weigh heavily on the next government.

Coming on top of unprecedented spending on coronavirus relief measures, the cost is sure to run into the billions. Bavarian Environment Minister Thorsten Glauber said his southern state would spend 40 billion euros on flood defences in the coming 20 years.

For immediate relief, the federal government plans to provide 200 million euros ($236 million) in emergency aid to repair buildings and damaged local infrastructure, and to help people in crisis situations, according to a draft document due to go to the cabinet on Wednesday.

That will come on top of 200 million euros that would come from the 16 federal states. The government also hopes for financial support from the European Union's solidarity fund. ($1 = 0.8487 euros) (Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, Madeline Chambers, Maria Sheahan; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)