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PARISH PRIEST IN WORST HIT TOWN – Many preventable dead in German flood

July 30, 2021

Robaird O’Cearhaill
Hong Kong Correspondent

As Northern Europe is ravaged by heatwaves, the deadliest disaster was a tsunami-type flood. Why, when predictably heavy floods were on the way, said official weather forecasts, in a German district, are there 177 dead and 1300 missing according to local authorities? What happened?      

 Joerg Meyrer, a priest in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, described the devastation to Associated Press: “It  came over us like a tsunami. Bridges, houses, apartments, utility pipes — everything that actually constitutes this town, what it lives on, has been gone since that night.” Moreover, he said there were”old people who died in bed because they couldn’t get up or because they didn’t hear it; young people who died minutes after helping others; people who died in their car because they wanted to drive it out when the flood wave surprised them.”

AP stated that: “Ahrweiler (district) had been told to expect the Ahr River, a tributary of the Rhine, to crest at 7 meters (nearly 23 feet), but Meyrer said few comprehended what that would mean. The last serious flood in the area south of Bonn was more than a century ago.” Why were the residents not able to understand that the river rise was so dangerous, and as Meyrer said, were “surprised”? 

And given the many expert warnings about global warming bringing extreme weather events, why did this happen in a very rich, well-managed country? That appears to be an under-appreciated issue that could reappear in many countries whether rich, middle income, or poor.        

Hannah Cloke, a well-informed academic, flood forecaster wrote about these questions in her article in the Conversation website “Europe’s Catastrophic Flooding Was Forecast Well in Advance – What Went So Wrong?”

Cloke, professor of hydrology at the University of Reading  helped set up the EU’s European Flood Warning Awareness System. “I work closely with people there in my role as an independent flood scientist.” She pointed out how the warning system failed. 

Weather forecasts were accurate and given days in advance of the flood – she checked – which warned of “extremely”  heavy rain and “little doubt that a major flood was coming.” However, “tragically, the whole system, ensuring people act before floods arrive, did not work as it should have done. In some areas many authorities did act in time to evacuate people, erect temporary flood defenses, and move vehicles to higher ground. But clearly this did not happen everywhere.” 

Several residents in Arhweiler told media they did not know the flood was coming or only at the last minute, and told Meyrer they were “surprised” Cloke participated in a recent survey among scientists and students about flood effects, visualizing what would happen. She concluded: “Effective flood warnings require people to see the future, imagine their house full of water, to assess the likelihood of that happening, and to see paths to keep them safe.” (Photo: AP Photo/Bram Janssen).