Deadly floods have left this German city in tatters. Now he’s trying to protect himself from the climate


Standing on tiptoe, Alfred Sebastian stretches his arm as high as he can towards the number 2021 painted red on the side of a building, which still bears brown watermarks from that horrid July night.

“The high water came here in 2016,” said the mayor of the German village of Dernau, pointing to a mark three meters from the wall. “Here in 1910,” he continued, pointing even higher, “and all the way up, the catastrophic floods of this year.”

Dernau, which lies about 60 kilometers south of Cologne, was one of the communities worst affected by the summer flooding of 2021 in western Germany. It lies along the banks of the Ahr River, which winds through the rolling vineyards of the Ahr Valley.

Dernau’s mayor Alfred Sebastian, who himself was forced to climb to the roof of his house on the night of the floods, is optimistic that residents will return. (Natalie Carney / CBC)

High waters are not uncommon here, but on July 14, they reached a record height of seven meters, when torrential rains turned the river into a powerful jet of water that washed away cars, houses and even people. major infrastructure.

A 40 kilometer stretch of the Ahr Valley was destroyed and 134 people were killed within hours.

Dernau dentist Peter Wild, 55, and his wife, Judit, live three blocks from the Ahr. Even here, water completely flooded the first two levels of their house. They have no floors and the walls have been bared. There is not a single piece of furniture left.

“We threw all the equipment and furniture out the window,” Wild said, pointing to an open second story window. “All the furniture came out. Everything was removed down to the bare concrete – all the tiles, the flooring, everything.”

More than half of the houses in Dernau are now uninhabitable, says Sebastian, as the floods have spoiled the materials they were built with or completely destroyed their foundations.

The ferocity of the floods and the damage they caused were the worst climate disaster in Germany since World War II.

Brown watermarks are still visible on the sides of many of the remaining houses, indicating the height of the water on July 14. (Natalie Carney / CBC)

Five months later, electricity and drinking water have not been fully restored, while the sounds of bulldozers and drills can be heard late into the night. Brown water pipes are still visible on some homes, while wasteland is all that is left of the others.

In the wake of the devastating effects of climate change, this German village has not only been forced to rebuild itself, but to rethink its future.

Emergency shelters

Local and international NGOs – such as the Federation of Workers’ Samaritans (ASB), a German aid and welfare organization have set up temporary shelters. The ASB has built 11 residential container units in Dernau for the elderly.

Peter Wild, pictured, and his wife Judit fled to the third floor of their house in Dernau on the night of July 14. (Natalie Carney / CBC)

These units come with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and living room and are a blessing for those with nowhere to go.

“It used to be accommodation for refugees,” said Armeen Kolians, ASB flood relief manager. “We just put vinyl on the floor and repainted the walls. Then there’s something like a menu service, a home emergency call system and all those things that maybe weren’t. not needed before, but now because of difficult times. “

As the holidays approach, the people of Dernau planted Christmas trees in lots that are now bare while festive decorations were perched in the shattered window frames of eviscerated buildings in a bid to boost morale.

Christmas decorations can be seen on the broken windows of some gutted buildings in Dernau. (Natalie Carney / CBC)

“We had a population of 1,800,” said Mayor Sebastian. “At the moment, there are a lot less. Emergency shelters were set up and people looked for a free apartment somewhere within a hundred kilometers so that they could return to Dernau every day to rebuild their homes.

Some former residents will not return, he said. “About ten percent say, ‘I can’t live here anymore. I’m afraid this flood will hit us again.’ They are afraid when it starts to rain so they have sold their house or are in the process of selling their house. ”

There are good reasons for this, say some climatologists.

Miranda Schreurs, professor of environmental and climate policy at the Technical University of Munich, says such catastrophic weather events will happen again, and with greater regularity.

“You can be pretty much assured that what we have seen in the world this year will continue,” she said. “And the impact will be huge. We have to think about changing our lifestyles to become much less dependent on fossil fuels, and we have to think about what we can do to bring nature back. The change will be difficult, it will really be. hard, but it’s so necessary. “

Stop flooding

Mayor Sebastian agrees. He wants to take the opportunity to rebuild Dernau with heating and an electricity network supplied by renewable energies.

But it will take money.

Some abandoned buildings were spray painted with words of environmental love, support and hope, including the slogan “Aufgeben Ist Keine Option” (Giving up is not an option). (Natalie Carney / CBC)

The German state and federal governments have agreed to a US $ 35 billion reconstruction fund for flood-ravaged areas, but Sebastian says the money has yet to reach victims. He fears this will lead people to rebuild again with fossil fuel heating systems.

He also calls for a national action plan against floods.

“We need to create more space for the Ahr River,” he argued. “We have to build retention basins in the tributary valleys, we have to implement a flood concept here in the next few years so that such a flood does not happen again, and we can live here without fear.”

Germany’s new center-left government coalition, which includes the Green Party, has placed a “green transition” at the top of its agenda. Environmentally friendly changes in infrastructure and energy production are expected across the country.

But this Christmas wish will come too late for those who have already lost so much in the Ahr Valley.

Dernau, which is part of the German Wine Route, is seen from a nearby mountain. (Natalie Carney / CBC)

The region is known to be a must-see along the German Wine Route, but now the only visitors are NGOs and journalists, Sebastian says.

“We were like the Garden of Eden, a paradise. And now we are destroyed, but hope to become again what we have always been: a place where we and the tourists can feel at home.”

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