Like other residents of his town in Germany, Wolfgang Huste knew a flood was coming. What nobody told him, he says, was how bad it would be.
The 66-year-old antiquarian bookseller in Ahrweiler said the first serious warning to evacuate or move to higher floors of buildings close to the Ahr River came through loudspeaker announcements at around 8 p.m. on July 14. Huste then heard a short emergency siren blast and church bells ring, followed by silence.
“It was spooky, like in a horror film,” he said.
Huste rushed to rescue his car from an underground garage. By the time he parked it on the street, the water stood knee height. Five minutes later, safely indoors, he saw his vehicle floating down the street. He would learn later that he also lost books dating back to the early 1500s and estimates his total losses at more than 200,000 euros ($235,000).
“The warning time was far too short,” Huste said.
With the confirmed death toll from last week’s floods in Germany and neighboring countries passing 210 on Friday and the economic cost expected to run into the billions, others in Germany have asked why the emergency systems designed to warn people of the impending disaster didn’t work. Sirens in some towns failed when the electricity was cut. In other locations, there were no sirens at all; volunteer firefighters had to go knocking on people’s doors to tell them what to do.
Huste acknowledged that few could have predicted the speed with which the water would rise. But he pointed across the valley to a building that houses Germany’s Federal Office for Civil Protection, where first responders from across the country train for possible disasters.
“In practice, as we just saw, it didn’t work, let’s say, as well as it should,” Huste said. “What the state should have done, it didn’t do. At least not until much later,” he said.
Local officials who were responsible for triggering disaster alarms in the Ahr valley on the first night of flooding have kept a low profile in the days since the deluge. At least 132 people in the Ahr valley alone.
Authorities in Rhineland-Palatinate state took charge of the disaster response in the wake of the floods, but they declined Friday to comment on what mistakes might have been made on the night disaster struck.