Volunteer army rebuilds Germany’s flood-stricken towns

In the wreckage left behind by devastating floods in western Germany, a growing number of volunteers is helping residents to rebuild.

Volunteer army rebuilds Germany's flood-stricken towns
Volunteer Rebekka, 22, works in an elementary school in Dernau, western Germany, on August 31th, 2021, weeks after heavy rain and floods caused major damage in the Ahr region. Photo: Yann Schreiber / AFP

Instead of the shouts of noisy children, the halls of the primary school in the German town of Dernau are
filled with the deafening sound of a dozen drills.

The workers on site are an army of unpaid volunteers who have taken on the colossal task of rebuilding towns that were devastated by deadly floods in western Germany seven weeks ago that washed away homes, offices and infrastructure.

Some are locals, or helpers at public organisations like the Red Cross or the fire brigade, but many others have travelled in from across the country, helping to clear up debris by day and sleeping in makeshift camps by night.

READ ALSO: Donkey-rescuing football star Havertz raises thousands for German flood victims

Although the government has pledged 30 billion euros ($35 billion) to fund the reconstruction work, residents say most of the help they receive comes from private people like the volunteers in Dernau.

With less than a month to go before general elections, politicians are “having a mud fight, but the real mud fight is here — and they’re not,” says one volunteer, Christine Jahn.

Before the floods, Dernau was a picturesque town, framed by steep valley slopes covered in vineyards. Today, entire streets in the worst-hit areas are no longer inhabitable.

Whole streets have disappeared in the once-picturesque town of Dernau. Photo: INA FASSBENDER / AFP

The school can no longer be used either: its pupils are now taking their classes elsewhere.

Inside the school, volunteers are working to strip flood-damaged walls, chipping away at a mural painted by the schoolchildren depicting the globe.

Two of those on site are Rebekka, 22, and her mother Judith, 52, who are working at the site together for the first time this week.

The end of the summer holidays in Germany has seen the number of volunteers ebb, but with more time to spare now her university exams are over, “I can still do my bit,” Rebekka says.

Volunteers are essential to the clear-up, says Judith. “It’s just faster to come here and get it done.”

‘Less babbling please’

The mustering point for the volunteers is a short drive outside Dernau, in the shadow of a hulking factory of confectionary company Haribo.

Some volunteers sleep here in tents and are provided with food, water, and the equipment they need to work in the flooded towns.

Jahn, 66, is in her last week at the camp, having come hundreds of miles from the east of Germany soon after the disaster struck.

A former construction worker, she started off “clearing mud” and “digging” wine bottles out of flooded cellars.

Helpers have complained that politicians have been too slow to act. Photo: Yann Schreiber / AFP

“I met some young people in the first three days and after that we always agreed to meet up each morning,” Jahn says.

Now she is seeing to it that volunteers are well provided for, making coffee and sandwiches for hundreds.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will on Friday visit the flood-stricken region for the second time.

READ ALSO: ‘National solidarity’: Germany earmarks €30 billion to rebuild after deadly floods

But concrete help from politicians has been slow to arrive, according to Jahn.

“I want less babbling and more getting on with it, so that the money arrives without bureaucracy.”

‘Our institutions failed’

At the town’s former train station, a quaint building with red-lacquered timber beams, another volunteer, Daniel, was taking delivery of bottles of water.

The station has been turned into a supplies shop called “Tante Emma” (“Auntie Emma’s”) that is stocked by donations, providing food, essentials and tools to local residents to help them repair their lives.

The shop entrance is piled high with nails, screws, and bottles of water behind a makeshift petrol pump.

One of several to manage the store, Daniel had come to the area with friends five weeks ago and decided to stay.

“I have a new contract in a hospital from December 1th, but until then I have time,” says the 29-year-old careworker.

“Without volunteers nothing here would work,” says Daniel, “our institutions have completely failed.”

Volunteers stand in front of Tante Emma, a store offering free daily essentials to displaced residents in the wine village of Dernau. Photo: INA FASSBENDER / AFP

“The longer ago the floods were, the more we need help,” he says, urging more people to provide support.

Marita, 78, a resident of Dernau forced to leave by the disaster, says: “We don’t get much from the state.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How you can support victims of the German flood tragedy

“Most of it comes from private people and donations,” she says.

While her house is being repaired, Marita has moved in with her daughter two hours away in Mainz.

She plans to move back one day. “This is where our friends are, where we grew up and we’ll continue living here.”

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Is the French Riviera better equipped to avoid more deadly floods?

Exactly a year after devastating storm killed 10 people the Mediterranean coast of southern France is once again being hit by torrential rain and floods. But has anything improved to avoid more disaster and death?

Is the French Riviera better equipped to avoid more deadly floods?
Storm Alex battered Nice, but the city got away relatively lightly. Photo: ValeryHache / AFP

On October 2nd, 2020, Storm Alex dumped more than 500mm of rain on parts of the Alpes-Maritimes department of southeast France in a matter of hours.

That’s the equivalent of half-a-tonne of rain per square metre over the 10-hour period that the storm battered the area.

Ten people died and dozens of homes were washed away – as were bridges and businesses – as almost a year’s worth of rain caused flash floods and mudslides in the Vésubie, Roya and Tinée valleys, turning the usually gentle rivers into devastating torrents.

Alex and its aftermath was termed a ‘once in a generation’ flood but it was, in fact, the second ‘generational’ weather event in less than a month along the Mediterranean arc, after floods hit the Gard in mid-September. 

In November and then again in December 2019, Cannes and its surroundings were partially inundated. Four years before that, on the night of October 3rd and 4th, 2015, an épisode méditerranéen in an area stretching from Mandelieu to Antibes left 20 dead.

The aftermath of violent storms and floods in Biot, southeastern France, on October 4, 2015. Photo: Jean Christophe Magnenet / AFP

Today, three in five people in France are at risk of a climate-linked natural disaster such as flooding, fire or ground movement – and the risk is worsening.

Global warming has seen disasters double in 20 years, according to United Nations’ figures, while major events – categorised as those that result in 10 or more deaths or €30million in damage – have quadrupled in France over the same period.

This week southern France is once again being hit by a deluge that has forced schools to close and authorities to warn people to stay at home.

Now, residents in areas repeatedly hit by floods in the Alpes-Maritimes are demanding public authorities work to protect them from a threat that hangs over their heads every autumn when weather conditions subject the area around the Mediterranean to unique pressures. 

As global warming increases sea temperatures, so-called épisodes méditerranéens are becoming more intense and more frequent. The Côte d’Azur has no choice but to adapt. So what – if anything – is happening?

Reconstruction work along the Roya river 10 months after Storm Alex devastated the area in October 2020. Photo: Valery Hache / AFP

Property owners who decide to stay are choosing to protect and adapt their homes to the annual threat of floods. One told France Info  radio recently that she recalled being told as a child that furniture in a family friend’s home would be taken through a large trapdoor in the ceiling of a family friend’s home into the roofspace when the nearby river was in flood.

“People lived with the risk,” she said. “You can’t stop water with a wall. It falls from the sky.”

It’s a sentiment that officials are embracing. Valérie Emphoux, director of the flood prevention department of the Sophia-Antipolis agglomeration said: “We must adopt the flooding spirit.”

Those who live near water have to accept flooding as part of life, she added, ‘even if it means seeing it sometimes flow through the garden’.

Meanwhile, authorities routinely write to homeowners whose properties have boundaries with waterways, urging them to take down walls, or other impediments to natural water flow, while also urging those whose properties are crossed by waterways to maintain them properly.

Town planners must also bear part of the blame for the worsening effects of flash floods in an area well used to them. The demand for property in the southeast of the country has prompted a wave of building work.

Tony Damiano, of Avenir 06, which works to promote natural heritage in the department said. “In the last 10 years alone, it’s got worse in terms of urbanisation. The attraction of the Côte d’Azur, the sea, the aura of the area… Prices have increased considerably and all this brings in people for whom the protection of nature is not a priority. It has been sold to the highest bidder.”

In fact, human developments along the PACA coast since the 1960s has done nothing to help the natural flow of rivers to the sea. Roads, railways and buildings – many with underground car parks – block water unnaturally, giving rising waters nowhere else to go than the streets at times of heavy rain.

But it’s not all bad news. The floods of 2015 have prompted action. Where 26 houses once stoodin the hamlet of La Brague, near badly affected Biot, a €10million project will widen the riverbed as part of a ‘rewilding’ of the site to allow the river to flood naturally and safely.

An earlier, similar project, dating back to 2011, had an impact in 2015. The banks of La Brague river were widened and deepened. It helped lower river levels upstream by as much as 50cm. 

Meanwhile, in Cannes-Lerins, €20million has been allocated since 2016 to develop sustainable flood prevention systems. Some 40 homes have been demolished to create a basin to slow down the river. 

“The objective is to slow down floods,” town councillor Michel Tani said.  “Every minute gained allows us to make property and people safe. When the weather is bad, gaining 10 minutes is vital.”