The dramatic floods of 14 and 15 July 2021 killed more than 220 people in Europe, leaving a trail of destruction in Germany and Belgium, and damage in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. Western Germany was worst-hit by the flooding. The state of Rhineland-Palatinate registered 49 deaths, while North Rhine-Westphalia said 135 were killed. The total cost of the damage in Germany is estimated to be more than € 30bn (£ 25bn).
In Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, residents are still waiting for the return of normal life a year after the devastation of deadly flash flooding.
About 18,000 inhabitants, or more than half the local population, were affected by the disaster in this once picturesque town in western Germany known for its thermal baths.
The anniversary of the night of 14 July will be marked on Thursday with a visit by the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz. The town’s mayor, Guido Orthen, will be able to show Scholz roads cleared of the muck and debris strewn by the floodwaters that submerged Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler.
But a return to the way things were “will still take time”, Orthen says, with rebuilding very much a work in progress. “We still have temporary infrastructure, temporary playgrounds, temporary schools, temporary roads that make life possible,” he says.
None of the 18 bridges that used to cross the Ahr river is functional yet, with three temporary crossings installed in their place. The traces of the flood are everywhere, from the collapsed banks by the roadside to the high-water mark on many of the buildings.
While officials may want to rebuild things as quickly as possible, they are also under pressure to make sure residents are protected from future floods. As it stands, “we are still living in the same dangerous situation as a year ago”, Orthen says. This puts residents in a state of anxiety any time bad weather is forecast, he adds.
In Germany, 185 people were killed in the disaster. The majority of the fatalities were in the Ahr valley, which winds along 25 miles (40km) to where the river joins the Rhine to the south of Bonn.
Orthen is dismayed that protective measures to keep residents safe from future floods are subject to interminable bureaucratic discussions. In zones with high flood-risk, the houses that have been destroyed are not permitted to be rebuilt, while those that were damaged can be repaired.
Moreover, town officials face a mountain of paperwork, with Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler expected to submit 1,400 requests for reconstruction projects by the end of June 2023. “We won’t be able to,” Orthen says. Even with reinforcements, his staff is “exhausted”.
After a year of living in a “state of emergency”, the mayor sees “disenchantment” and a “feeling of powerlessness” growing among his residents. More than 2,000 people have left the town in the last year.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, only € 500m in aid have been handed out of the total € 15bn set aside. The slow progress is an “affront to those affected”, according to conservative state legislator Horst Gies, quoted in the General Anzeiger daily. In the neighboring state of North Rhine-Westphalia, € 1.6bn in government support has been approved for use, out of a total of € 12.3bn.
In the town of Sinzig, about 9.3 miles from Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, candles have been lit in front of a former care home, where 12 residents died in the floods. The organization that ran the home, Lebenshilfe, is still looking for a location to open a new facility.
“Our discussions with the mayor’s office and the local administration still haven’t produced anything,” says Ulrich van Bebber, the chair of the care home operator. Frustration is building among those trying to rebuild their lives as promised help is slow to arrive. “We want to exist in the eyes of Germany,” says Iris Münn-Buschow. The ground floor of her home is still in the middle of repair works.
“We have the impression everything else that goes on in the world is more important than what happens here in Germany,” Münn-Buschow says. With her husband, she has founded Das Ahrtal steht auf, “the Ahr valley stands up”, which has organized a series of protests.
“Nobody has forgotten the Ahr valley and the other regions,” the minister president of Rhineland-Palatinate state, Malu Dreyer, said recently, stressing the extent of the work still left to do.