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ANALYSIS: Why Germany faces tough questions over its disaster response

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What’s happened?

Germany is coming to terms with the extreme flooding that has killed at least 169 people, with the death toll likely to rise. It is the worst natural disaster to hit the country since the North Sea Flood of 1962 killed hundreds of people in the Hamburg area.

The clean-up and search for missing people in the western regions of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia is ongoing after the catastrophic flooding in western regions on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. 

Houses and infrastructure have been destroyed. Survivors are relying on emergency accommodation and are being provided with food and clean water. Many regions have no power or basic facilities after the water swept in and wiped everything out. Experts say it will take months and years to rebuild towns.

READ ALSO: Rebuilding Germany’s flood-ravaged areas ‘will take years’

Why have so many people died?

There is no clear answer for this, especially at this stage. But the high number of deaths has raised questions over why people were caught by surprise by the flash flooding. Opposition politicians – as well as some scientists – say the death toll has revealed failures in Germany’s disaster response and the way it prepares for flooding. 

Accounts by survivors of the floods have repeatedly mentioned the sheer amount of water – and the speed – that engulfed their communities in minutes, signalling an extreme weather event of epic proportions. However, the questions remain: could more have been done to get people out of the situation and save lives?

READ ALSO:

What do we know about weather warnings?

As well as local and national weather warnings, the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) – which was set up in 2002 after devastating floods on the Elbe and Danube – sounded the alarm early.

They signalled that a high probability of flooding was predicted for the Rhine in Germany and Switzerland, followed by a high flood risk for the Meuse in Belgium, reports Bavarian broadcaster BR24.

The first EFAS warnings were sent to the relevant national authorities on July 10th – days before the flash floods hit on July 13th and 14th. 

“In this case, flood warnings were sent to national authorities about the high flood risk in the coming days. The warning system is not responsible for warnings to the population or evacuations,” said EU Commission spokeswoman Sonya Gospodínova.

In Germany, EFAS messages go to the state offices for the environment in Bavaria, Hesse and Saxony and to the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BKK) in Bonn.

EFAS messages were updated several times, with more than 25 warnings sent for specific regions on the Rhine and Meuse by July 14th, according to EU data.

In an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper, British researcher Hannah Cloke, who helped set up the system, called the German flood disaster “a monumental failure of the system” and blamed “breaks in the chain” of preparation.

The professor said she was surprised that so many people died when everyone knew what was coming and there was plenty of time to get people to safety.

Cloke said after the alerts go out, it is then up to national authorities to decide what to do with the information. 

Germany’s federal meteorological service the German Weather Service (DWD) passed warnings on to local authorities, according to spokesman Uwe Kirsche. But he added: “As a federal authority, the DWD is not responsible for initiating evacuations or other measures on-site… that is a task for the local authorities.” 

Did the message get through to residents?

German authorities say residents in affected areas were warned. But did the warnings from meteorologists reach everyone on the ground – or did they reach people too late?

In Germany, the 16 federal states are responsible for disaster control. Local authorities can use sirens, loudspeaker announcements or radio and TV bulletins to warn residents of acute danger or issue evacuation orders.

Warnings are also issued via apps like Nina or Katwarn on smartphones. Was there a breakdown in communication, though?

Some survivors told reporters on the ground that they didn’t see any official warnings, and instead were told by family members or neighbours.

A notice on the warning app Nina during a ‘warning day’ to prepare for disasters in Germany last year. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Robert Michael

During a visit to the devastated town of Bad Muenstereifel on Tuesday Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany had a “very good warning system”.

She also insisted: “This was flooding that surpassed our imagination when you see the destruction it wrought” despite last week’s forecasts of torrential downpours.

Flooding caused power outages in several regions of Germany, causing further difficulties and this likely hampered alerts. 

READ ALSO: Merkel defends German flood alerts as death toll climbs

Why didn’t people get SMS text alerts – or more warning?

People are also now questioning why Germany doesn’t have a mass text alert system for situations like this. 

“In the worst flood disaster in nearly 60 years in Germany, with at least 165 deaths, disaster management failed to warn citizens,” wrote Bild newspaper in a damning report. “Barely functioning sirens, no early evacuations and data protection prevented warning text messages to all affected citizens.”

On Tuesday federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer told Bild that he wanted Germany to implement a so-called mobile broadcast system. This would see SMS alerts sent out to all mobile network users, either in a country or specific area in just a few seconds, in case of emergencies.

Germany has chosen not to base its widespread emergency alerts on this system, unlike other countries such as the Netherlands, Greece, Romania, Italy, or the USA. Instead their digital alerts come through apps. 

READ ALSO: Why weren’t all residents of Germany’s flood zones alerted via text?

Scheuer said Germany didn’t have this system in place due to data protection concerns.

“I am in favour of having these push messages reach citizens via mobile phone providers as well,” the CSU politician told Bild. “But that has always failed because the political will has been lacking in some places.”

Professor Thomas Jäger, chair of International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne, said that more should have been done when the weather warnings came in at an early stage. 

“First, preventive information should be provided, i.e., beforehand.” he told Editorial Network Germany. “And then, in the event of a disaster, (people should be warned) in the classic way: either with loudspeaker trucks, sirens or even the dropping of flyers. You have to be prepared for the fact that the usual channels of information are blocked.

“It doesn’t matter how the message gets through. But it must get there.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel in Bad Muenstereifel on Tuesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa Pool | Oliver Berg

What else are German officials saying?

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on Monday acknowledged that more could be done but pushed back on the criticism. He said: “I don’t rule out that we have to improve one or two things.” But the warnings had worked without any technical problem, Seehofer said.

Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) chief Armin Schuster also said, “Our warnings, our entire warning infrastructure, worked completely.”

There’s also been a debate about whether the federal government should have a bigger role in assisting with these kinds of severe weather warnings. 

But that’s had a mixed reaction. Seehofer said: “It would be completely inconceivable for such a catastrophe to be managed centrally from any one place. You need local knowledge.”

Union faction vice-chairman Thorsten Frei, however, called for a national disaster control law. “Not to undermine federalism – but so that we are able to act when the damage situations go beyond state borders,” the CDU politician told Handelsblatt newspaper.

What happens now?

The focus is still on the search for missing people and support for survivors. But there are already calls for reviews to determine what happened. 

The German Firefighters Association called for “a reappraisal and evaluation” after the crisis operation. 

“This should also clarify whether, for example, warning systems need to be adapted – for example, with the analogue-controlled siren as a supplement to digital media,” association president Karl-Heinz Banse told the Augsburger Allgemeine.

At the moment, however, he said it was too early “to make demands or even assign blame.” “Currently, we are still in the emergency relief phase on the ground.”

The president of the German Association of Cities, Burkhard Jung, also said that after the emergency, “a crystal-clear analysis” of what can be learned from the storm disaster was needed. 

He said the country needed to take a closer look at communication “in the event of extreme weather”.



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Shocking news, Irish people may be sanest in Europe

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Ireland is running low on loopers. If we don’t watch out, we could emerge from the pandemic with our reputation for wildness completely shredded. We are in danger of being exposed as the sanest people in Europe.

Vaccines go into the arm, but also into the brain. They are a kind of probe sent into the national consciousness. In Ireland’s case, the probe has discovered exciting evidence of intelligent life.

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Vienna school under fire for sex ed class using doll for children as young as six

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According to Austria’s Kronen Zeitung newspaper, a teacher used a doll to explain “how sex works” to the children, while also encouraging them to use their hands and fingers on the doll. 

She said she wanted to “enlighten” the children about aspects of sex education. The children in the class were between the ages of six and ten. 

The teacher also explained to the children that “condoms should be used if you don’t want to have babies”, the newspaper reports. 

One boy was told to remove the clothes of the doll but refused before being told that he had to do so. 

The boys parents removed him from the school, saying that he was “overwhelmed” after the class and had started touching his sister inappropriately. 

“We have never seen our son like this before, he was completely overwhelmed” the parents said anonymously, “we are taking him out of the school.”

“We can already see the consequences. 

“A few days after these disturbing lessons, a classmate came to us to play. Like many times before, the boy also played with our ten-year-old daughter. This time he suddenly wanted to pull her pants down.

Peter Stippl, President of the Association for Psychotherapy, said that while sex education was crucially important, it needed to be age appropriate in order to be effective. 

“(This type of sexual education) scares the children! They get a wrong approach to the topic and their natural limit of shame is violated,” he said. 

“Sex education must always be age-appropriate and development-appropriate. Many children are six, seven or eight years old – or even older – not interested in sexual intercourse.

“We should never explain sexuality in schools in isolation from love and relationships. It makes you feel insecure and afraid. It harms the development of children.”

The Austrian Ministry of Education will now set up a commission to determine who will be allowed to teach sex ed in schools. 

The city of Vienna is also investigating the specific incident. 



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Madrid’s Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado granted World Heritage status | Culture

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Madrid’s famous Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado boulevard have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The decision, made on Sunday, brings the total number of World Heritage Sites in Spain to 49 – the third-highest in the world after Italy and China.

Up until Sunday, none of these sites were located in the Spanish capital. The Madrid region, however, was home to three: El Escorial Monastery in Alcalá de Henares, the historical center of Aranjuez and the Montejo beech forest in Montejo de la Sierra.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez celebrated the news on Twitter, saying it was a “deserved recognition of a space in the capital that enriches our historical, artistic and cultural legacy.”

Retiro Park is a green refuge of 118 hectares in the center of the city of Madrid. Paseo del Prado boulevard is another icon of the capital, featuring six museums, major fountains such as the Fuente de Cibeles as well as the famous Plaza de Cibeles square.

For the sites to be granted World Heritage status, Spain needed the support of two-thirds of the UNESCO committee – 15 votes from 21 countries. The proposal was backed by Brazil, Ethiopia, Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, Mali, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Oman and Saudi Arabia, among others.

Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.
Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.Víctor Sainz

Prior to the vote, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the organization that advises UNESCO, had argued against considering the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park as one site, and recommended that the latter be left out on the grounds that there were no “historic justifications” for the two to be paired.

This idea was strongly opposed by Spain’s ambassador to UNESCO, Andrés Perelló, who said: “What they are asking us to do is rip out a lung from Madrid. El Prado and El Retiro are a happy union, whose marriage is certified with a cartography more than three centuries old.” The origins of Paseo del Prado date back to 1565, while Retiro Park was first opened to the public during the Enlightenment.

Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado.
Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado. Víctor Sainz

The ICOMOS report also denounced the air pollution surrounding the site. To address these concerns, Madrid City Hall indicated it plans to reduce car traffic under its Madrid 360 initiative, which among other things is set to turn 10 kilometers of 48 streets into pedestrian areas, but is considered less ambitious than its predecessor Madrid Central.

The 44th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in the Chinese city of Fuzhou and was broadcast live at Madrid’s El Prado Museum. Perelló summed up the reasons to include Retiro Park and El Paseo de Prado in less than three minutes.

“When people say ‘from Madrid to heaven’ [the slogan of the Spanish capital] I ask myself why would you want to go to heaven when heaven is already in Madrid,” he told delegates at the event, which was scheduled to take place in 2020, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Every year, UNESCO evaluates 25 proposals for additions to the World Heritage List. In the case of the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park, the site was judged on whether it evidenced an exchange of considerable architectural influences, was a representative example of a form of construction or complex and if it was associated with traditions that are still alive today. The famous park and boulevard sought to be inscribed on the UNESCO list in 1992, but its candidacy did not reach the final stage of the process.

Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).
Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).Biblioteca Nacional de España

The effort to win recognition for the sites’ outstanding universal value began again in 2014 under former Madrid mayor Ana Botella, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), and was strengthed by her successor Manuela Carmena, of the leftist Ahora Madrid party, which was later renamed Más Madrid. An advisor from UNESCO visited the site in October 2019.

English version by Melissa Kitson.



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