At the end of the week there is a risk of heavy rain with the risk of flooding. However, very few communities in Germany are properly prepared – despite the Ahr disaster last year. What happens when the next disaster strikes?

Months of drought are followed by heavy rain. A 27-year-old woman in the Allgäu recently had to experience how dangerous this can be: Due to a short period of very heavy rain, the mountain stream in the Starzlachklamm gorge swelled so much that the masses of water swept away a group of canyoning participants. The young athlete could no longer escape the water that rolled through the gorge towards the valley and was only rescued dead.

But why can heavy rain be so devastating after a drought? “Heavily dried out soil can only absorb water very slowly,” says Andreas Brömser from the German Weather Service (DWD) to FOCUS online. “If heavy rain now hits very dry topsoil, most of the water cannot penetrate the soil and quickly drains off the surface.” The draining soil material could be carried away and lead to erosion, according to the weather expert.

If a large amount of water then flows off, there is a risk of flash floods or rapidly rising flood waters. “Examples from recent years would be the Ahr Valley or Simbach in 2016,” says Brömser. Such scenarios can particularly threaten the Alpine region and low mountain ranges such as the Harz Mountains.

Built-up areas and valleys are particularly at risk, explains the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK). Rapidly rising water often does not have enough space there. In densely populated and built-up valleys, the water can also sweep away houses.

Who is responsible when the heavy rain floods valleys and houses? “For local citizens, the municipalities, or the districts and urban districts are the contact persons,” writes the Federal Ministry of the Interior on its website. These include, for example, the fire brigades, many of which function on a purely voluntary basis.

Only when the disaster alarm is triggered does the state government step in. The federal government even only becomes active when there is a case of defense, explains a BBK spokesman.

In order to intervene quickly and directly, it is important that the civil protection officers responsible are on site and have local knowledge. It therefore makes perfect sense to use municipal authorities as the primary contact.

But that only works if the responsible authorities are prepared accordingly and issue a warning in good time. The flood disaster in the Ahr valley revealed the faults in this small-scale system.

Those who are not warned of heavy rain in good time often cannot get to safety quickly enough – the people in the Ahr Valley also had to experience this, which was destroyed by the flood disaster last year and claimed many lives.

Compared to FOCUS online, the BBK emphasizes a “mix of warning devices”:

In order to warn citizens of extreme weather events such as heavy rain in good time, the municipalities must evaluate the DWD warnings and pass them on to those affected. But that’s exactly what didn’t happen in time in the Ahr valley.

This again raises the question of whether the warning systems in Germany really work across the board. Because the use of apps like NINA and Katwarn is far from being as widespread as the authorities would like it to be. This is also confirmed by Hans Meyrl, Office Manager for Fire and Disaster Protection in the city of Rosenheim. “We use these apps, but we notice that they are not very widespread in the population. Only after catastrophes, such as the Rosenheim “flood of the century” in 2013, does demand increase. Two parameters are decisive for the acceptance of warning apps: relevance and timeliness. If they are, the number of users will also increase,” Meyrl is convinced. According to the BBK, almost 10 million people are currently using apps like NINA – i.e. only around one eighth of the total population.

To prepare for floods, the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior writes that the responsible municipalities must regularly draw up and update flood action plans. The same applies to the Harz region, which is also affected by the risk of heavy rain. There, too, the interior ministries of Lower Saxony and Thuringia are planning such plans at the request of FOCUS online.

But the extent of heavy rain and the associated flash floods and damage are often difficult to predict. And not every community is equally well prepared, says Frieder Kircher, crisis expert and chairman of the joint committee for fire protection education and fire protection education from vfdb and DFV: “There are communities that are very well positioned, then there are those that turn a blind eye make.”

Many counties are conducting risk assessments, Kircher explains. “I have the feeling that many people know: ‘We have to do something’, but don’t do it,” says Kircher. Because there are often problems on the local political agenda that are seen as more urgent.

For example in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen: the fire brigades and the civil protection authority had already learned lessons from the flood disasters in 1999, 2002 and 2005, says District Fire Councilor Johann Eitzenberger. There, for example, the entire local area is covered with siren reception – while this is only slowly being expanded again in other parts of Germany.

The BBK also knows that there is a lot of catching up to do. The Federal Office is currently involved in the development of new warning devices. This includes cell broadcast, which is scheduled to go live from February and will be tested for the first time on the nationwide warning day on December 8, 2022.

When asked by FOCUS online, a spokeswoman for the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior explained that Cell Broadcast uses the mobile phone network to transmit messages. Warnings would be sent from the antenna like radio signals to all devices that are currently in the respective radio cell.

In other countries, cell broadcast is already a tried and tested means of warning the population of dangers. Japan has been using the system since 2007, where the early warning of the 2011 earthquake saved the lives of tens of thousands of people: At that time, warnings on people’s cell phones sometimes arrived ten seconds to two minutes before the first shock waves, which gave many people time to get themselves in time to bring to safety. Poland introduced it in 2018, in Greece people have been warned by SMS for two years.

With some delay, the service should now also start in Germany. The flood disaster in the Ahr Valley was also decisive here.

At the same time, the federal government decided to expand the siren, which is being funded by the respective state governments – although in some cities such as Braunschweig their dismantling was actively pursued until 2020.

Crisis expert Kircher explains that after the flood in the Ahr Valley, it was found that there are hardly any possibilities for warnings in crises: “Many sirens were removed after the end of the Cold War.” Now the siren locations are to be strengthened again.

In Lower Saxony, the dangers of heavy rain were recognized even before the dramatic images of the flood disaster. The pilot project “Municipal heavy rain prevention in Lower Saxony” has been running here since 2020. In the municipalities of Steyerberg and Salzdefurth, a concept is currently being tested that aims to reduce damage caused by heavy rain and flooding through targeted urban planning.

Ultimately, however, even the best warning systems are useless if the population is not properly trained and prepared, says Kircher. He advocates establishing nationwide offers. One of the best options: teaching civil protection in schools, for example in connection with fire safety education. “There is a lot of catching up to do here. Why is Charlemagne on the curriculum but not civil protection?”

Also see: