Updated: Feb 18
Overreliance on digital tools, reluctance to order evacuations and lack of preparedness hampered prevention.
The first precise warning that Germany was about to be hit by a violent storm likely to unleash a potentially deadly flood reached the country’s Meteorological Service in the early hours of July 12, nearly three days before disaster struck.
It was Monday morning, and this government agency’s supercomputer, a machine the size of a hockey rink, had just generated a model forecast predicting with over 90% certainty and a precision down to 2 square kilometers that a string of West German communities would likely be befallen by severe flooding by late Wednesday.
The alarming forecast, which soon proved to be accurate, was picked up by the agency’s on-duty meteorologist who promptly triggered the country’s sophisticated flood alert system at 6 a.m., notifying at once the government, the emergency services, the police and key media about the looming catastrophe.
Some local authorities heeded the warning and alerted their populations, potentially saving lives, but many others failed to do so before the flash floods hit Germany last Wednesday, killing over 160 and seriously injuring nearly 1000 people.
Officials say those numbers could increase as rescuers keep combing through destroyed homes.
In those places, an overreliance on digital tools such as warning apps meant to replace old-school sirens and public service announcements, the reluctance to order evacuations, and simply incredulity about the imminence of such a disaster were among the factors that stood in the way of a pre-emptive response, experts and officials said.
Some experts said that the situation resembled that of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when some governments were late to take adequate action to ward off a calamity no one had ever witnessed before.
As Germany is coming to terms with the record death toll and the severe devastation of densely populated areas, questions are arising about the state of flood preparedness in Europe’s largest economy and whether lives could have been saved.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government on Monday rejected accusations from opposition politicians that it had failed to act on the warnings by its own meteorological agency.
Independent meteorologists and scientists also issued their own public alerts before the flooding, including on social media.
With a general election on Sept. 26 approaching, the flood has become a campaign issue. Opposition politicians on Monday said Ms. Merkel’s government should have acted on these early warnings, with some calling for Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who oversees disaster management, to resign.
“This was a grave systemic failure: We must openly talk about the failures of government and what needs to be immediately improved to prevent this from repeating,” said Michael Theurer, a lawmaker for the center-right Free Democratic Party.
Mr. Seehofer rejected the accusations and said the federal government is not in charge of natural-disaster prevention.
In Germany’s decentralized system, this role rests with city and county councils in the 16 federal states which are tasked with acting upon the weather service’s warnings.
“We issued the warning as early as possible,” said Uwe Kirsche, spokesman for the Meteorological Service. The service then put out the warning on its social-media channels, Mr. Kirsche said, and sent an alert to its app that is used by around 10 million people in Germany.
The warning was then broadcast on public service television, with newscasters announcing that some of the areas that later became flooded would see 200 liters of rain per square meter—an exceedingly rare amount that was certain to cause severe flooding.
Armin Schuster, head of the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, said that Germany had a uniquely good alert system that worked impeccably. Over 150 alerts were issued in the run-up to the flood, 16 of them indicating lethal danger, he said.
Yet for many ordinary viewers, this was just one weather warning among many. And many local authorities tasked with preparing the population for floods were surprised at how quickly the events unfolded.
The flash floods that came after midnight on Wednesday shut down electricity and telecommunication networks, cutting off people in the affected areas from official communication.
Data released by the German Weather Service showed that parts of Germany had received close to 200 millimeters of rain in three days—almost as much as is recorded in a month in India during monsoon season.
Counties that had a siren warning system, originally devised for air raids, and those that sent out fire-department trucks equipped with loudspeakers to drive through the night and warn residents to flee to higher ground appear to have done better than those who followed other protocols or didn’t have those resources.
Some people who received the warning rushed to their cellars as the flooding started in order to rescue valuable items only to be overwhelmed by the sudden torrent, officials involved in the rescue said.
As waters subsided, rescuers began discovering lifeless bodies inside the cellars of buildings across the flooded region. People driving on the roads as the flood hit were quickly caught up in an overwhelming water mass that threw their cars around like toys.
“There was not enough caution about something unknown,” Mr. Kirsche said. “Even I would probably had run to the cellar to grab something I hold dear if I didn’t know that it takes less than one minute for the flood to completely fill up a basement.”
While flooding is relatively common in Germany, an early, unpublished estimate by his service came to the conclusion that last week’s flood was an event that is only likely to happen once in 500 years, Mr. Kirsche said.
Daniela Adelsbach, who runs a pharmacy in Ehrang near the town of Trier, said local firefighters had passed through the town at 1 a.m. on Wednesday and warned people to seek higher ground. Ms. Adelsbach quickly moved the valuable items from her ground-floor business to the first floor.
The next morning, the firefighters came back and ordered immediate evacuation as the water began swelling. In less than a minute, the water level rose from one centimeter to over half a meter, with a current strong enough to knock down a person, she added.
Yet because of the early waning, no one was killed or seriously injured in the community.
Wuppertal, a nearby city, also emerged from the flood without any casualties after authorities sounded the siren alert and dispatched firefighters to warn residents.
Wuppertal is one of the comparatively few cities that still has an operational siren system including loudspeakers that can broadcast a recorded flood warning.
The siren system, first used during World War II air raids, was largely abandoned after the Cold War, when the possibility of aerial attacks became a distant memory. Yet Wuppertal held on to its sirens, said city spokeswoman Ulrike Schmidt-Kessler.
“The disaster was clearly forecast, and the only question was where exactly would the flood hit, so we sent out a warning on social media and the local radio, and when things got worse in the night on Wednesday we triggered the siren alert and sent out the fire department,” Ms. Schmidt-Kessler said.
The firetrucks were broadcasting a prerecorded announcement instructing people to seek higher ground, she said. Flood shelters were set up for people who live in vulnerable housing to seek refuge from the flood.
“We believe the siren alert and the announcement targeting the actual residents is more effective than relying on digital tools, because not everyone has an app, and clearly we cannot rely on mobile phones because the connection can be lost in a flood—as actually happened,” she added.
Even communities that had experience with flooding have struggled to quickly shore up preparedness. Simbach am Inn, a town in Bavaria that was flooded in 2016, is still working on obtaining a siren system with automated announcements like that of Wuppertal, said Klaus Schmid, the mayor.
Severe weather warnings come relatively often, and it is not possible to alert the population each time, let alone to order an evacuation, which is a severely intrusive measure, Mr. Schmid said.
The federal government is financially supporting states to deploy a new network of siren warning systems, a government spokeswoman said.
The reluctance to act on meteorologists’ warnings both among officials and the general population would need to change in order to improve Germany’s response and brace society for a future where such events could become more frequent, said Fred Hattermann, who studies hydroclimatic risks at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
“Especially in vulnerable regions like the ones that suffered flooding now—very densely populated communities nested in small valleys, with older infrastructure and unfavorable land elevation—people must take the warnings from weather observatories very seriously,” he said.