Flooding has devastated parts of Western Europe since last Wednesday, with the German states of Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, as well as parts of Belgium, among the worst hit.
In the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne, at least 117 people were killed, and police warned that the death toll would almost certainly rise as the clean-up continues from floods whose costs are expected to rise into the many billions.
The high death toll has raised questions around why so many people seemed to have been surprised by the flash flooding, with opposition politicians suggesting the death toll revealed serious failings in Germany’s flood preparedness.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer yesterday said in response that the German National Meteorological Service (DWD) issues warnings to Germany’s 16 states and from there to districts and communities that decide at a local level how to respond.
“It would be completely inconceivable for such a catastrophe to be managed centrally from any one place,” Seehofer said. “You need local knowledge.”
Criticism of the emergency response was “cheap election campaign rhetoric,” he said.
The devastation of the floods, attributed by meteorologists to the effects of climate change, could shake up Germany’s federal election in September, which until now had seen little discussion of climate.
A poll for Der Spiegel found only 26 per cent thought Armin Laschet, the state premier who is the conservatives’ candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, was a good crisis manager.
The campaign frontrunner was pilloried last week for seeming to laugh while the German president delivered a solemn mourning speech.
Armin Schuster, head of the federal disaster management agency, challenged claims that his agency had done too little, telling Reuters in an interview that it had sent out 150 warnings, but that it was for local authorities to decide how to respond.