After the Flood: Life in Germany's Disaster Zone
In June, massive flooding along Germany's Elbe and Danube rivers caused massive damage across the country. Many families lost everything and it may turn out to be the most expensive natural disaster in the country's history. Our reporters revisited some of the worst-hit areas one month after the catastrophe.
As soon as the first aerial pictures came out, it was clear this was a catastrophe of historic proportions. Entire swaths of land were under water, with only treetops and roofs visible, but no streets, train tracks, or people.
Between May 26 and June 2 of this year, 22.76 trillion liters (6.01 trillion US gallons) of rain fell in Germany, an amount equal to roughly half the volume of Lake Constance, which makes up a section of Germany's southern border. This was also 3 million liters (800,000 gallons) more than the rains that preceded the so-called "flood of the century" in 2002 along the Elbe River, which devastated Dresden and other cities. The Chiemgau region of Bavaria received 275 liters of rain per square meter (about 7 gallons per square foot) within a 48-hour period -- more than normally falls in that area during the entire month of June.
Oddly, the driest part of Germany in June was Saxony-Anhalt -- the same eastern state that was particularly badly affected by the flooding. Emergency response teams worked there for four weeks, not wrapping up their work until July 2. A state of emergency was in effect during the same period for the area around the city of Stendal, where the Elbe River breached a dike and flooded several villages, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Many lost their homes, their possessions and livelihood. Farmers will have no harvest this year and cities and towns have a great deal of infrastructure to rebuild, including the high-speed rail link between Berlin and Hanover that connects the German capital with important cities like Frankfurt and Cologne.
Some areas looked much like war zones during the flooding, with military convoys rumbling through the streets and helicopters whirring overhead. With around 19,000 soldiers present, this was the German army's largest ever humanitarian deployment within its own borders.
The floods have left more than €12 billion ($15.6 billion) in damages in their wake, according to the latest estimate by German reinsurer Munich Re. "The final level of damages hasn't yet been determined, but it is very possible that it will be the most expensive natural disaster in Germany's history," Peter Höppe, a meteorologist and the head of geo risks research at Munich Re, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
But the floods have left behind less tangible things as well -- the impressive work of those who came to help, the solidarity of those affected and their strength in not giving in to despair.
SPIEGEL ONLINE has interviewed people in the affected areas, where many are starting to rebuild their homes and lives now that the floodwaters have receded.
A hopeful message appeared on the still-wet stones of Passau's city hall. Someone had used chalk to spell out three clearly visible words in Latin next to the high-water mark affixed to the building's façade: "Fluctuat nec mergitur," or "She is tossed by the waves but does not sink."
Passau has just experienced the worst flood in its history. The square in front of the city hall, and with it the buildings of the Old Town, as well as the Ilzstadt and Innstadt districts of the city, spent days submerged under water several stories high. The historic high-water markings on Passau's city hall tower have always been a favorite subject for tourists' photographs. But now that this flood has left a dark line considerably higher than even the topmost previous marker, from 1501, the tower is drawing droves of curious sightseers.
"Clean-up efforts are complete," the city declares proudly on its website. In the downtown pedestrian zones affected by the flooding, businesses are enticing customers with "flood discounts." The proprietors of one ice cream parlor have taken a humorous view of the catastrophe, putting a picture of an inflatable boat in their window under the inscription, "Who needs Venice?"
Passau needs tourists to refill its empty coffers, but the sight of groups of sightseers strolling through the city's lanes with a camera in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other, stopping to gawk at the destroyed store windows and the moldering ruins of restaurants, is difficult for many residents of the recently flooded neighborhoods to bear.
"I'm still in shock," says Annette Wolf, who has run Goldenes Schiff, a Bavarian-style pub and lovingly appointed bed and breakfast, with her husband for the last 25 years. "She is tossed by the waves but does not sink" -- that motto is only somewhat applicable to the Wolfs' business, where the kitchen, wood-paneled dining room, storeroom and bathrooms were all completely destroyed in the flood.
"The city had announced that the water would reach the level of the 2002 flood," Peter Wolf recalls. When they heard this news, the couple began emptying out their business' cellar "at a comfortable pace." The Goldenes Schiff, or Golden Ship, is located near a promenade which runs along the Inn River on a street called Unterer Sand, or "lower sand". Aquarium, a bar that attracts artists, is located next door. From the names alone, it certainly sounds as if the inhabitants of this area are used to floods. "It was a true flash flood that swept through here," Peter Wolf says, with the Inn rising six meters (20 feet) in 20 hours -- much higher than it did in the 2002 flood.
"I'm never hauling sandbags again," Wolf says. "I'd rather just buy fishermen's pants." He says he fought his way through the hip-high water in his restaurant, wearing flip-flops and swim trunks, to recover drinks and provisions from the kitchen. The Wolf family spent three days trapped inside by the flood together with four of their bed and breakfast guests.
"None of us could have imagined it would get this bad," says Regina Reeber, proprietor of the Aquarium, which is located just a few buildings away from the Wolfs' business in the same street. She has documented the force of the water in photographs displayed in the front window of her bar, which now stands empty. During the flood, the water reached the ceiling. A tree trunk in the small beer garden out front now bears a high-water marking at a height of about three meters. The beer garden, currently Reeber's only source of income, is open from 5 p.m. "whenever the sun shines." Reeber views herself as an optimist. She's worked in the restaurant business for 30 years and says, "I've gone through many new beginnings. This is the most tragic one so far, but I know life will go on somehow."
"I've gone through many new beginnings. This is the most tragic one so far, but I know life will go on somehow."
It's a confidence that Annette Wolf feels unable to express yet. When the benefit song "Weida mitanand" -- the title is in the Bavarian dialect and roughly translates as "continuing on together" -- plays on the radio, Wolf has to fight to hold back tears. Her voice keeps failing her, but that may also have something to do with the bronchitis she contracted at some point over the last few days. Her husband, too, is suffering from a terrible cough. "It's from spending the last two weeks in debris and mud," says Peter Wolf. The fire department, he explains, failed to distribute dust masks, and some of the students who came to help were sent into the neighborhood's oil-contaminated basements without protective clothing. Five hundred helpers, most of them students, cleared debris out of the buildings along Unterer Sand in the days following the flood.
The city's urban gardeners and hard-working construction workers have put a great deal of effort into covering over the city's scars by erecting planters and laying new flower beds. It's only along the promenade next to the Inn River that the sidewalk is still buried under a layer of sand. But this brightly colored façade is deceptive. Behind the scenes, most of Passau's arts and cultural scene has ground to a halt. A nighttime wander through the narrow lanes here offers only the echoing sound of one's own footsteps on the cobblestones and the hum of space heaters in the buildings' basements and empty ground floors. The Innpromenade Cinema; the Scharfrichterhaus, a historic building used as a performance space; the City Theater -- all are seriously damaged and closed until further notice. Meanwhile, the few Old Town restaurants that didn't fall victim to the floods are doing their best business ever.
Where the Goldenes Schiff once served up dumplings, potato salad and Bavarian sausages, there is nothing but a gaping brown hole. In a display case in front of the restaurant where a menu once hung, the Wolfs have pinned up a note asking for donations. "We had a long winter, a rainy spring and now a flooded summer," Peter Wolf laments. "We don't know how we're going to make ends meet." The city, he says, has promised to cover half the cost of purchasing new equipment to replace what was destroyed and to pay the waitstaff's salaries. It's a start, and one the Wolfs are glad to have.
The waters that inundated huge swaths of eastern Germany and Central Europe in 2002 were dubbed the "flood of a century." But that might also be one reason why the flooding of 2013 was so devastating. If a disaster is seen as a once-in-a-century occurrence, one tends to feel safe after such an event occurs -- perhaps not for an entire century, but at least for a few decades. In any case, federal and state officials made no rush to develop and implement new flood-protection plans.
In 2003, officials from areas along the Elbe River agreed on an "action plan." Between then and 2011, the states of Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony jointly invested some €480 million ($620 million) into efforts to refurbish the dikes along the Elbe (see graphic).
Nevertheless, when the river and its tributaries started rising again in June 2013, it became obvious that flood protection was far from sufficient in many places. What had been a joint action plan was followed by disjointed efforts pursued according to the wishes of individual states. Each one did what it thought was right. And sometimes, such as when communities or citizens stood opposed to relocating levees or building new protective walls, they didn’t even do that.
Grimma is one example. The city, which had suffered €250 million in damages during the 2002 floods, was supposed to build a protective wall to save it from the worst. The wall could have been finished before the most recent flood, but protests by citizens delayed the beginning of its construction until August 2007. In the end, the needed protection was sorely missed, and the city has now suffered an estimated €200 million in damages.
Many believe that the solution lies in relocating levees. Rivers have been cut off from their natural floodplains in Germany, they argue, and need to be given more room. Although environmentalists back such projects, farmers and residents are afraid of having their land expropriated if the dikes are pushed farther back from rivers. As a result, even though many areas have had effective flood-protection plans in place for some time now, there has been only modest progress on them. That could now change. Politicians have openly expressed the possibility of decreasing the amount of influence voters have over building measures related to flood prevention. And it might be that many of the voters are growing less inclined to fight such changes. After all, they have just experienced the second "flood of a century" in little over a decade, and they no longer view the chances of the next one coming as lying at some point in the distant future.
Money Spent on Flood Protection Measures
Click on the individual states for more information
The only thing that remains is a kitchen table of solid oak, standing on the dark underlay where the flooring has been stripped away. The walls are bare, speckled with grayish brown spots and give off a moldy smell. Dehumidifiers hum from the corners of the room. "An old heirloom," is how Gerhard Sauer, 41, describes the table. Then he laughs, as if this building at Hauptstrasse 5 in Deggendorf were a newly furnished dream home and not a badly damaged apartment, where floodwaters from the Danube River turned his belongings into useless lumps of sludge.
The living room furnishings, the kitchen, the children's bedrooms -- all gone. It will be quite a while before the family of four feels at home again within their own four walls, particularly given that the Sauers first need to focus on getting their business up and running again. Without the fishing supply store they run, the family has no income. And the floods hit both their store and their adjacent apartment.
Twenty percent of Deggendorf ended up under water when the Danube overflowed its banks a few weeks ago, impacting 900 households, over 600 buildings and more than 180 businesses. Total damages in Deggendorf alone are estimated at €500 million ($640 million).
Gerhard Sauer's fishing shop would normally be booming during the high season.
The effects can still be seen in the city's Fischerdorf district, which was particularly hard hit. The Schiller Butcher Shop still bears a display window sign advertising "hot and cold specialties for parties," but the brown-tiled salesroom stands empty, no meat and sausage products to be had. The store's projected reopening date is late August at the earliest -- "If all goes well," adds proprietor Josef Schiller and sighs. The fast food restaurant across the street is likewise closed, with debris piled up in front of its door.
Gerhard Sauer, the fishing supply store owner, calculates over €100,000 worth of damage to his business, not counting the ongoing loss of income. The employee who usually works for him is receiving compensation for his reduced work hours, although this would usually be peak season in the fishing business. "It's definitely a bitter pill to swallow," Sauer says.
It's the only sentence Sauer utters that provides any hint of what he has lost. For days, his bank account has seen little but withdrawals. And with both his apartment and his business flooded, it would be all too easy to lose hope. But Sauer is fighting back. "It would take a lot more than some silly flood to make me give up," he says. In jeans and running shoes, with his sleeves rolled up, Sauer is standing in the storefront where he plans to begin selling his wares again in late July. "We're ready and eager to get started," he adds.
Sauer first received emergency aid of €5,000 from the German government, followed by other assistance as well. "All of it has been provided in an entirely unbureaucratic way," he notes. Those funds won't even come close to covering the damages he has to repair, but it takes him "a big step further." Another thing bolstering Sauer is the support of his relatives, friends and acquaintances, some of whom organized the dehumidifiers he's using now. Others showed up to help even before the floodwater had receded. "That gave me extra motivation," Sauer says.
And he's certain the worst days are behind him, when he was staying with friends as the floodwaters peaked, preventing him from accessing his apartment or his store at all. But he went back as soon as he could, handing out rubber boots and headlamps from his stock to the helpers and relief workers, to help Fischerdorf get back on its feet. Sauer's new counter for his store is due to arrive soon, and his computer system and telephone are supposed to be up and running again in short order as well. He's planning a big party when the store reopens.
The writing on Sauer's T-shirt reads, "We're the good ones." Just as fitting might be, "We're the unshakable ones."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the aid earmarked for those affected by the recent flooding should be "swift, lasting (and) unbureaucratic." Such aid is supposed to come from a flood relief fund that is currently being hammered out. Plans call for it to entail €8 billion ($10.3 billion) in funds from both federal and state coffers. What’s more, Germany will have to take on more debt to come up with this financing. Owing to the enormous destruction caused by the flood, there is simply no real alternative.
At the moment, there is also no final tally of the damages. But a look at individual sectors throws light on the extent of the destruction. The agricultural sector, for example, has been hit particularly hard. Barns and fields have been inundated, animal feed has rotted, farming equipment has been destroyed. Farmers have so far reported some €400 million in damage. More than half of these farms are in Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt. And chances are that the figure will climb.
The European Union has approved German emergency funds to farmers, which could reach up to €600 million. Plans call for these funds to be disbursed in this and the following year. However, the criteria determining how these funds will be paid out have yet to be fixed.
Germany’s government estimates that rebuilding destroyed federal infrastructure alone will cost €1.5 billion. And even companies that were not directly affected by the flooding are feeling its effects. This can be seen, for example, in the tourism sector. Since the flood, there has been a sharp drop in visitors, particularly in eastern Germany. Hotels, restaurants, cultural institutions and small shops have suffered declines.
Initial estimates suggested that damages from the 2013 flood would be roughly the same level as those sustained in 2002. Back then, insurance companies paid out a total of €1.8 billion to settle some 150,000 damage claims. So far, roughly 180,000 damage claims have been filed as a result of the recent flood.
That number, though, only refers to insurance claims paid. Munich insurance giant Munich Re estimates that the ultimate costs of the 2013 floods will grow to more than €12 billion, which would make it the most expensive natural disaster in German history.
Alexander Erdland, president of the German Insurance Association (GDV), notes that the number of buildings in Germany insured against natural catastrophes rose from 19 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2013. But his figures don’t tell the whole story. Despite the increases, many tenants couldn’t get any protection because insurance companies deemed the risks too high.
The phone rang shortly before midnight. The dike near Fischbeck had broken, Bernd Bleis was told by a local farmer. "It probably won’t get so bad," he thought before going back to sleep. But when he saw the gushing water on the following day, he suspected that it might be worse than ever.
Bleis, 43, is a farmer in Schönhausen, a small town of about 2,000 residents west of Berlin in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. The flood washed over almost the entire area, including thousands of hectares of farmland. The German Farmers’ Association (DBV) estimates that a total of some 730 square kilometers (280 square miles) of fields in Saxony-Anhalt were inundated during the flooding, an area almost as large as the entire city-state of Hamburg.
Two weeks after the dike broke, Bleis drives his small car over narrow dirt roads still flanked by water on both sides. Dead cereal crops lie where the water has receded. It is a scene of misery. "I’ve gotten used to it," Bleis says. "At a certain point, the feelings just shut off."
In a calm voice, Bleis recounts how he was able to bring 110 cows and several horses to safety at the last moment. He recalls how he took his tractors to a neighboring farm, how his wife and children drove to Bremerhaven to stay with the grandparents when the water arrived.
Bleis has about 360 hectares (890 acres) of property, or about the area of 500 football pitches. His fields are covered with barley, wheat, corn and rye. He’d been planning to harvest the rapeseed at the end of July. During the drive through the fields, Bleis keeps pointing out the window. "Gone," he says. "Rotted away. Everything, gone."
Still, losing this year’s harvest isn’t Bleis’ only problem. It is unclear when he will be able to drive equipment in the fields again after they were so thoroughly soaked with water. No one can say when the sowing of next year’s harvests will happen. Bleis has stored up enough feed reserves to take care of his animals for a few months. Other farmers are in much worse shape, he says, and he’s heard rumors that some of them only have enough feed to last a few weeks.
When we arrive at the farm, Bleis parks the car and goes into the barn. He says he couldn't help but shed tears when he first saw the area here covered in water. The muddy flood waters rose to the point that they were 80 centimeters (32 inches) deep. Bleis uses his pocketknife to show how high they climbed on the wall.
When asked about all the stories being told of his genuine acts of heroism, the farmer says: "No, no, we shouldn’t exaggerate.""
The barn is dry now. A local soccer team helped clean things up, and the cows can be milked again. Bleis says the team spirit was immense -- something one hears from everyone in the area that was flooded. Bleis also speaks of a "major and extremely pronounced solidarity."
Jens Köpke answers the phone at his house in Garz, about 30 kilometers farther north. When asked about all the stories being told of his genuine acts of heroism, the farmer says: "No, no, we shouldn’t exaggerate." Later, on his farm, the 42-year-old talks about how he battled the flood with other volunteers, farmers and soldiers -- and how they were at least partially victorious.
In Garz, they had four more days to prepare for the flood waters. At a certain point, it became obvious that things were going to get really tight. So the local residents decided to build a levee out of sandbags.
All of the volunteers gathered at Köpke’s farm, which lies at the entrance to the town. "No one can imagine what things were like here that day," Köpke says. "No one was above lending a hand." All of a sudden, he continues, people who hadn’t spoken to each other for years were talking. Things got started around noon; by the evening, there was a levee about a kilometer long and up to two meters high.
The farmers played a key role in the efforts. The rapid construction of the dike wouldn’t have even been possible without their equipment: tractors, earthmovers, telescopic loaders, forklifts and trailers. An agricultural machinery dealer mobilized its customers, who helped out at many spots as the levee was being built. People here aren’t happy about politicians saying that some farmland might be expropriated as part of future flood-protection efforts. "Flood control can only be done with the farmers, not against them," says one man.
The three small towns of Garz, Kuhlhausen and Warnau escaped the flooding, at least in their residential areas. But Köpke’s fields were flooded. Some 90 percent of his 1,500 hectares were affected. "We were just about to have the harvest of our lives," he says. At least the biogas plant and the barns stayed dry. But even Köpke says: "It’s going to be very complicated for us."
After touring the flood zone, the DBV’s president called for a special aid package for farmers, saying that they should get an advanced allowance of €500 ($640) per hectare at the very least. Bernd Bleis, the farmer from Schönhausen, was one of three farmers to get immediate assistance from a DBV-run foundation. He says that the €10,000 he received might be enough to keep his farm running for two to three months, but then government aid needs to kick in. If it doesn’t, he says, he’ll be forced to make changes: to move his business, to sell his cows, to let employees go. Taking out fresh loans is hardly an option, he adds, saying that: "Like every farmer here, we’ve already taken out plenty of loans."
Before saying goodbye, Bleis drives through the town once more. The flood waters are slowly receding. The streets are full of bulky household rubbish and destroyed furniture. It’s time to clean things up. "Now’s when the real work starts for us," he says.
In addition to the towns and communities hit by flood damage, swollen waters also ravaged one of Germany's most important high-speed rail lines connecting the capital Berlin with major western cities like Hanover, Frankfurt and Cologne.
Floods devastated an important crossing on the route, and parts of the high-speed line are still underwater. National railway Deutsche Bahn hasn't even been able to assess the extent of the damage yet, but has estimated that service on the route will not resume for months to come.
Trains on the route generally travel at 250 kilometers per hour (155 miles per hour), whisking passengers from Berlin to Hanover in about 1.5 hours. But the tracks rest on concrete slabs that must be carefully inspected before operations can resume. After the floodwaters completely recede and the ground underneath the tracks dries out sufficiently, the flooded stretch will be analyzed using Geo-Radar, a type of ultrasound device, to ensure that it is safe for high-speed operations.
The disruption has created significant difficulties for many long-distance train routes in Germany. Particularly hard hit are hundreds of employees at Volkswagen, for whom the high-speed link makes it possible to work at the company's headquarters in Wolfsburg while living in Berlin. When the line is working, the commute takes about an hour each way. Now, however, it often takes up to three hours, with direct trains a rarity.
The disturbance in service also affects tourists trying to reach the German capital by train from major European cities like Paris and Amsterdam.
Without a clearer picture of the damage to the line, Deutsche Bahn can't yet provide exact figures on the scope of the disaster. Many, though, believe that it will be months before train traffic returns to normal. Head of infrastructure for Deutsche Bahn, Volker Kefer, has warned that total damages could reach between "€200 million and €500 million." Like the cities hit by the floods, the national railway is also hoping for a major handout from the German government to get back on track.
The days before the flood were the worst part, says Stefanie Wischer. Everyone in Kamern knew that the waters would reach them, too. The only thing they didn’t know was when they would hit and how much water there would be. The 40-year-old biologist and educator says that the village was in a state of "panic." Sandbags were piled up. Furniture was moved to high places, and valuables -- diaries, photo albums, cars -- were put in safe places.
Stefanie and her husband run the Grünes Haus, or Green House, in Kamern. It’s a hostel for class trips, excursions, church retreats and the like. The house lies right on Kamernschen See, an oxbow lake that used to be part of the Elbe River. In normal times, it is an idyllic spot. In June 2013, it was a crisis zone -- and one with no hope of escaping the flooding.
Kamern lies about 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Fischbeck, the place where the Elbe dike broke and water rushed into the surrounding countryside. "One is powerless," Wischer says. "One can only stand there and look on" -- look on as her life's work is submerged in water.
Wischer didn’t want to be there to watch as the water continued to rise, as her property was flooded -- the workshop, the dining hall, the bedrooms and even the family’s living quarters. When the waters finally came, Wischer was at her in-laws’ place in a neighboring town. She was physically and psychologically drained.
Now Wischer has regained her composure. She is sitting in the Grünes Haus looking out the window. "Self-pity would be completely out of place," she says. Although there’s nothing funny about her situation, she laughs a lot as she speaks. She and her husband had renovated the bathrooms and bedrooms just last year, and the roof was supposed to be redone this year. But, instead, they now have to rip out the floors, use a pressure washer to spray the mud out of the entry hall and toss out all sorts of furniture. The house is dry now, but there is still plenty of water outside.
The road leading up to the Grünes Haus runs over a neighbor’s property, where waders are being stored in a shack. Standing at the gate to the garden, Wischer quips: "Close the door behind you or the water will come back in." The muddy water is already up to her knees. If you can’t make a joke about things sometimes, she says, you’re never going to be able to cope with them.
The smell is inescapable, and a thin film of oil can be seen in places on the water. The parquet floor of the dining hall has been warped into a dune-like landscape. Wischer says the mosquito infestation has already reached "scary" proportions.
"It hurts to see everything that’s destroyed. But it would hurt even more to move away from here and give everything up."
She says she couldn’t cry at first, and that she only gave way to her emotions days after the flood. There have also been moments of doubt, she adds. They come in the evening, when she is exhausted after spending a long day trudging through water.
"It hurts to see everything that’s destroyed," she says. "But it would hurt even more to move away from here and give everything up."
The Wischers bought this house on the lake a decade ago and renovated it piecemeal. Now they plan to fix it back up again. They are getting a lot of help from friends and even from former guests. The family’s livelihood is not in danger, as her husband’s job as a mechanical engineer provides them with a guaranteed income. But, even with the pledged aid for flood victims, only time will tell how they are going to pay for refurbishing the Grünes Haus. Wischer estimates that there has been more than €200,000 in damage. "And, in any case, we’re already paying off old loans," she adds.
Despite her predicament, Wischer wants to believe that she can make it. But she is also "seriously worried" that there could be another devastating flood. It’s a Herculean task to recover from something like this. It’s almost impossible to do it a second time, she says, and "at a certain point, one also gets too old."
Wischer also says that people have to prepare themselves for these kinds of floods. "The Elbe has to get the space it needs," she adds.
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