Questions raised about Germany's warning system after flood disaster

Questions raised about Germany's warning system after flood disaster

As the flood waters begin to subside in western Germany, questions are being raised about the country’s response to the disaster: what went wrong and what can the country do better? 

Questioning Germany’s disaster response in aftermath of floods

Germany is reeling in the aftermath of its worst flooding disaster in decades, which has so far claimed the lives of more than 165 victims and caused billions of euros’ worth of damage to housing, energy supply, roads and bridges. 

With the cleanup operation still underway, public discourse is inevitably turning to the question of what went wrong. Although last week forecasters issued high-level warnings for extreme weather like torrential rain and flash floods, the rapidly-rising waters that swept away homes and roads caught people by surprise. There seems to have been some kind of breakdown in communication. 

“For so many people to die in floods in Europe in 2021 represents a monumental failure of the system,” Hannah Cloke, an advisor for the European Flood Awareness System, said to Politico. “Forecasters could see this heavy rain coming and issued alerts early in the week, and yet the warnings were not taken seriously enough and preparations were inadequate.” She added that not enough people received warnings to evacuate or move to higher ground. 

Authorities were too slow to coordinate?

Disaster control in Germany lies with the federal states, who are responsible for releasing information and issuing alerts. However, some critics say that the disaster has laid bare the flaws in this system, with coordination between separate authorities not coming quickly enough. Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has come in for special criticism. 

The FDP party has spoken of a “system failure” that meant that the warnings of meteorologists were “not adequately communicated to citizens, either by the authorities or by public service broadcasters.” The Left party is calling for Seehofer’s resignation. 

The Green party said that Germany’s disaster control system was a dangerous patchwork quilt in which “every municipality and every district and every state government warns people in the region to different degrees and offers different levels of access to the important information in the event of a disaster.” 

The Green chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock, told Spiegel, “We need to reshape disaster management, and the federal government needs to take more responsibility for it… There needs to be an authority that bundles all forces, that pulls together helicopters or special equipment from all over Germany or neighbouring EU countries as quickly as possible.”  

On Monday, Seehofer rejected criticism of him as “cheap election rhetoric," saying that it “would be completely inconceivable for such a catastrophe to be managed centrally from any one place. You need local knowledge,” he said. He acknowledged that some improvements could be made, but maintained that the warning system had worked. 

Weather was too severe to predict?

Other voices still are claiming that, while Germany was sufficiently prepared, in some instances the forces of nature are simply too strong. On Sunday, Angela Merkel acknowledged that lessons could be taken from the disaster, but cautioned against setting expectations too high. “Of course we can ask ourselves what can be done better,” she said. “But in some situations things happen so quickly that you can’t fully escape the force of nature.” 

Armin Schuster, the head of the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BKK), said the warning system had worked, but that the weather had this time been too severe to predict. “Our warning infrastructure worked,” he told ZDF. Reinhard Sager, president of the German County Council association, also spoke out against fingering someone with the blame. “Against such lightning-fast forces of nature, humans are simply powerless after a certain point,” he said. 

The Interior Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Herbert Reul, said that his state’s handling of the disaster was not perfect, but insisted that there were “no major fundamental problems” in its response. He said that the focus should now be on how to reach those who, for instance, do not have a warning app on their mobile phone, and how to communicate the severity of weather alerts to residents.

Crisis managers have explained that one step in disaster control is to inform people correctly and quickly, but that the next step is for people to react to the warning. According to local aid organisations, some residents did not follow warnings from the emergency services and did not want to leave their homes. Others apparently returned too early. 



Abi Carter

Abi studied History & German at the University of Manchester. She has since worked as a writer, editor and content marketeer, but still has a soft spot for museums, castles...

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