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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?

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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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New skeleton find could reveal more about Vesuvius eruption

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The remains of a man presumed to be aged 40-45 were found under metres of volcanic rock roughly where Herculaneum’s shoreline used to be, before Vesuvius’ explosion in 79 AD pushed it back by 500 metres (1,640 feet).   

He was lying down, facing inland, and probably saw death in the face as he was overwhelmed by the molten lava that buried his city, the head of the Herculaneum archaeological park, Francesco Sirano, told the ANSA news agency.

“He could have been a rescuer”, Sirano suggested.

As Vesuvius erupted, a naval fleet came to the rescue, led by the ancient Roman scholar and commander Pliny the Elder. He died on the shore, but it is believed that his officers managed to evacuate hundreds of survivors.

The skeleton might have otherwise belonged to “one of the fugitives” who was trying to get on one of the lifeboats, “perhaps the unlucky last one of a group that had managed to sail off,” Sirano suggested.

It was found covered by charred wood remains, including a beam from a building that may have smashed his skull, while his bones appear bright red, possibly blood markings left as the victim was engulfed in the volcanic discharge.

Archaeologists also found traces of tissue and metal objects — likely the remains of personal belongings he was fleeing with: maybe a bag, work tools, or even weapons or coins, the head of the archaeological park said.

Other human remains have been found in and around Herculaneum in the past decades — including a skull held in a Rome museum that some attribute to Pliny — but the latest discovery can be investigated with more modern techniques.

READ ALSO: Study finds 2,000-year-old brain cells of man killed in Vesuvius eruption

“Today we have the possibility of understanding more”, Sirano said.

Researchers believe that in Herculaneum temperatures rose up to 500 degrees — enough to vaporise soft tissues. In a phenomenon that is poorly understood, a rapid drop in temperature ensued, helping preserve what remained.

Although much smaller than Pompeii, its better-known neighbour outside the southern city of Naples, Herculaneum was a wealthier town with more exquisite architecture, much of which is still to be uncovered.

READ ALSO: Where are Italy’s active volcanoes?



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Lou Reed: The Velvet Underground: an inside look at the band that gave a voice to the outsiders | USA

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The importance of The Velvet Underground has been endlessly discussed. They are, with a nod to The Beatles, the modern rock group par excellence. Formed by Lou Reed and John Cale in New York in 1965, the band was immediately endorsed by Andy Warhol, with whom they would collaborate until 1967, although his influence would never leave them. The Velvet Underground were a sixties group that, during its five years of existence, failed to fit into their era for a single day. While others sung of love and good vibrations, they designed a revolutionary and perverse alternative for rock.

It was an alternative that remains valid to this day, half a century after the group was mortally wounded by the departure of Reed in August 1970. To corroborate this, Apple TV will premiere The Velvet Underground in October. Directed by Todd Haynes, the documentary is full of never-before-seen footage and interviews with people who were in the thick of it at the time, more than compensating for a dearth of movies about a band that can be described as legendary without fear of slipping into musical nepotism.

Lou Reed in ‘The Velvet Underground’ documentary.
Lou Reed in ‘The Velvet Underground’ documentary.

The documentary arrives in good company. At the end of September I’ll be your mirror: A tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico was released, an album of cover versions of the group’s influential debut album when the line-up consisted of Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker. A posthumous work by producer Hal Willner, who died of Covid-19 in 2020, it features contributions by Thurston Moore, Sharon van Etten, Iggy Pop, Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett and Michael Stipe, among others.

Speaking about the original The Velvet Underground & Nico, released in 1967, Haynes said in an interview with Uncut magazine earlier this year that it is music that makes you think about how fragile identity is, and also about life. The journalist Susana Monteagudo concurs with Haynes. “The Velvet Underground were the first punk group in terms of transgression of codes and creative freedom,” says the author of books including Illustrated History of Rock and Amy Winehouse. Stranger than her. “As well as practicing the philosophy of do-it-yourself and rejecting the commercial course of the music industry, they subverted the establishment by making dissidence visible on every level, not just in artistic terms. They embraced the marginal and they were too nihilistic, cynical and sinister for the Flower Power era.”

The Velvet Underground did not belong to their time, but to the future. Cale wanted to fuse rock and roll with experimental music. Reed’s lyrics were open to the influence of writers like Burroughs, Delmore Schwartz and John Rechy. They were a loud and screeching band, but they also composed melodic songs. This contrast is most evident on The Velvet Underground & Nico, which contains some of the group’s most beautiful songs. I’ll be your mirror and Femme Fatale are sung by Nico (who also provides vocals on the chorus of Sunday morning, originally written for her but eventually sung by Reed), one of the most conflicting elements of the band.

For trans artist Roberta Marrero, Nico, the German model and singer who died in 1988, was an “icon of undisputable beauty, as well as being a pioneer who opened the door for other greats like Siouxsie.” In spite of her beauty, Nico did not fit the prevailing pop girl model of the time. Her singing style was far removed from traditional rock and openly reflected her Germanic and Gothic roots. Her inscrutable personality was married to a talent that after she left the Velvet Underground would manifest itself in unclassifiable works such as The marble index (1969), whose idiosyncrasy – tearing up the blueprint of pop music and exploring musical latitudes reserved for men – would inspire Kate Bush and Björk, as well as more contemporary artists such as Julia Holter, St Vincent and Anohni.

The Velvet Underground, clockwise from top left: Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale, Moe Tucker and Nico.
The Velvet Underground, clockwise from top left: Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale, Moe Tucker and Nico.

The Velvet Underground also broke with the heterosexual tradition of rock music. In Monteagudo’s view, in addition to creating a literary imagery “where there was room for homosexuals, trans women, prostitutes, junkies and outsiders in general,” they were also “a band not exclusively made up of males, and men who at the same time did not identify with a heteronormative masculinity, especially in the case of Lou Reed. They integrated and normalized diversity in their sphere because their way of life was linked to this concept. It was also the dawning of the ambiguous, the queer.” Marrero believes that “they brought non-normative sexualities to the forefront, such as sadism, more so than homosexuality. Although when I think about it, I’m waiting for my man could be talking about a gigolo and not a drug-dealer. In reality, it’s very ambiguous.”

This divorce from the prevailing canons also had a lot do with the presence of Maureen “Moe” Tucker. Her drum work with the band anticipated a trend that would not take hold until 1977, with the explosion of punk. From that point on, the female role in groups ceased to be principally pigeon-holed into certain instruments and roles. In Monteagudo’s opinion, Tucker is “a key element of this breaking of stereotypes and, as such, a figure to be held up by feminism. Her playing style, as unorthodox as it was influential, is one of those achievements that should be emphasized by the movement. Furthermore, her androgynous image and her discretion made her a counterpoint to Nico’s glamour.”

Revered by bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, who dedicated a song to her, and as Marrero asserts, a precursor to drummers such as Hannah Billie, formerly of Gossip, Tucker is, along with Cale, one of the survivors of the Velvet Underground’s original line-up. Due to her social media stance on Donald Trump and gun ownership, Tucker has also become the band’s least popular member.

Warhol’s influence was a determining factor behind The Velvet Underground developing such a peculiar personality. In the strictly musical sense, the band projected through their instruments some of the ideas on repetition, improvisation and saturation that the artist applied to his experimental movies. On the literary side, the people who frequented Warhol’s Factory left their mark on songs including That’s the story of my life (inspired by Billy Name, the Factory’s archivist) Femme fatale (inspired by the ‘it’ girl Edie Sedgwick) or the Reed-penned Candy says, which is about Candy Darling, an icon of the trans community.

“When Candy says was released in 1969 nothing changed,” says Marrero, “but I think it was a marvelous celebration of trans culture on the part of the group. It is one of my favorite songs. You have to read the lyrics in a historical context because all that stuff about being trans and hating your body is a discourse that is now quite outdated in our community.” Marrero also notes that, years later, Reed was in a relationship with a trans colleague, Rachel Humphries, the two sharing a “romantic relationship that was utterly silenced by the hetero-ciscentric music press.”

When he started his solo career Reed would again talk about Candy Darling and other trans actresses on Walk on the wild side, one of the hits on his acclaimed 1972 album Transformer, a record that finally delivered many of The Velvet Underground’s artistic ideas to a wider audience. By that time, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Suicide, Modern Lovers and New York Dolls we ready to do the group’s legacy justice.

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A Treasure of Old Christian Paintings in a Russian Church in a Remote Forest

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One of the editors of RI actually visited this church this summer, and we can assure you, it is REMOTE!  Brumfield, in his understated way, doesn’t describe the condition of the road leading to this village, but it is barely passable at times.  The number of remarkable architectural and other treasures hiding in the Russian hinterlands, especially in the north, is rather extraordinary.


This article is from a series by the invaluable William Brumfield, (Wikipedia), Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA.

Brumfield is the world’s leading historian of Russian architecture.  He makes frequent trips to Russia, often to her remote regions, and records the most unusual examples of surviving architecture with detailed, professional photography.  

His most recent book is a real treasure, Architecture At The End Of The Earth, Photographing The Russian North (2015). (Amazon).  This truly beautiful book was made possible by the support of a US philanthropist, and its true cost is 3 times its retail price, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.  Here is our 2015 review of it.

Bravo to RBTH for making Brumfield’s work possible, and providing such a great platform for his beautiful photography.  We recommend visiting the RBTH page, which has a slide show for each article with many more pictures than we can fit in here.

Don’t believe in miracles?  Well, we can assure you, Brumfield’s work is undoubtedly just that.  You can find a complete list of his articles on RI here.

The original headline for this article was: The Church at Korovye: Abandoned Treasure of Russian Art


The turbulence of the past century has left many abandoned architectural monuments in Russia’s regions — parish churches, former estate houses, log houses and churches in villages where no one lives. However modest, they all reflect the history of their area, and some of them are — or were — masterpieces of creativity.

One of these monuments is located in the tiny village of Korovye near the Viga River just off the road to Chukhloma. Although the village name is modestly derived from the word for “cow,” its church has the imposing and unusual dedication to the Convocation of the Mother of God. Within the abandoned church is one of the most unusual displays of religious art in all Russia. On the walls of the main structure, the artist in effect created a miniature Renaissance palazzo for the display of the sacred images.

The village of Korovye was originally known as Verkhniaia pustyn (“Upper wilderness”), a reference to one of the three monastic retreats founded in the Chukhloma area by St. Avraamy Gorodetsky. Dissolved in the middle of the 18th century, the small monastery’s two wooden churches — dedicated to the Convocation of the Virgin and to Elijah the Prophet — were converted to use as parish churches. In 1797, parishioners provided resources to rebuild the former as a large brick church that would serve a group of 34 villages (most of which no longer exist).

Attributed to the noted Kostroma architect Stepan A. Vorotilov (1741-1792), the design reveals a professional mastery unusual for a rural church. Whereas typical parish churches had a sprawling refectory with additional altars that pushed the main structure away from the bell tower, here all the components are tightly integrated.

Image iconsnimok_ekrana_2016-08-12_v_13.12.42.png

The structure rests on a ground floor that contained secondary altars and was used for worship in the winter months. Above the ground floor rise the essential components of a parish church: the main worship space with two rows of windows and five cupolas, a rectangular apse for the primary altar at the east end and on the west, a compact refectory and magnificent bell tower over the main entrance.

This sophisticated, technically demanding design created a coherent visual tie between the primary components of the church: the bell tower and the core structure with five cupolas. The main interior space on the upper floor was dominated by an elegant neoclassical iconostasis. 

The majestic character of this design was demonstrated when the Convocation Church was chosen for a visit by Emperor Alexander I and his wife Empress Elizabeth on their way back from a visit to the Urals territory in the fall of 1824. Indeed, during the first half of the 19th century, this church could claim to be the most imposing in the Chukhloma region, surpassing even those in Chukhloma itself.

A fire in the late 1890s damaged much of the interior and led to a major renovation that extended from 1903 to 1906. On the ground floor, a refectory (containing altars to Elijah the Prophet, St. Nicholas and St. Avraamy Gorodetsky) was expanded on the north and south sides. The expansion was artfully hidden by a grand staircase that curved upward from both sides to the main portal on the second level of the bell tower. This skillful renovation — and particularly the stairway — gave the church a still more imposing appearance as it soared above the two main streets of the village.

Yet the great miracle occurred on the interior, whose walls were repainted under the direction of a Moscow artist identified as Anufry A. Bakhvalov, a native of this area. Although the work of Anufry Bakhvalov is little known, the scope of imagination represented by these wall paintings is extraordinary, even daring. The artist did not simply depict the religious subjects in a Renaissance-based style typical of academic painting, he painted the subjects within imposing Renaissance frames situated between neoclassical columns with lavish composite capitals — and all of this in trompe l’oeil (on a flat, two-dimensional surface). At some points, Bakhvalov even painted the shadows cast by the illusory frames. The interior space had become a miniature Renaissance art gallery.

Image iconsnimok_ekrana_2016-08-12_v_13.13.03.png

Surviving fragments of the paintings on the north and south walls include full-length figures of St. Vladimir, St. Catherine, St. Nicetas and St Macarius on the lower level between the windows. The upper level of the north and south walls is devoted primarily to a portrayal of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with their symbols — another unusual artistic decision. (The Evangelists are often depicted on spandrels beneath the main dome, but spandrels are absent in this structure.) On the south wall are John (now effaced) with the eagle, and Mark with an endearingly vivid depiction of a guardian lion. On the north wall are Matthew, compelling in his concentration and assisted by an adoring angel; and Luke with the bull (both largely destroyed). The north wall also contains a depiction of Christ with Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus — one of the most moving episodes in the Gospel account of the life of Christ.

Equal to the Evangelists in their artistry are the three scenes above the arch in the west wall: the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes (Christ feeding the Multitudes) on the left side; Pentecost (Mary and the Apostles) in the center; and a vivid depiction of Balthazar’s Feast on the north side of the west wall. Throughout, there is evidence of the artist’s knowledge of Renaissance art, particularly in Balthazar’s Feast, which depicts armed horsemen storming through the gate of the burning city. On the east, the apse contained a depiction of the Last Supper, now almost effaced.

Image iconsnimok_ekrana_2016-08-12_v_13.12.56.png

The ceiling vaults in their height represented a culmination of the visual program. Although much has been lost, fragments remain of the august display of the Synaxis (Gathering) of the Archangels, part of the larger concept of the Convocation of the Virgin. Crowned archangels and angels gather on the north and south flanks, while the east flank was devoted to the cartouche with the Crucifixion (destroyed). The west flank presumably had a depiction of the Mother of God enthroned.

Image iconsnimok_ekrana_2016-08-12_v_13.13.36.png

Unfortunately, the Convocation Church’s glory days were soon eclipsed by the rise to power of an avowedly atheistic regime. Although it survived longer than many other churches, the Convocation Church was closed in 1937 during a renewed wave of terror against religion. Subsequently the icons were removed, and the ground level was used as a storehouse for various purposes. The cupolas were destroyed, and in the 1980s, the area of the church was apparently used as a detention center for juvenile delinquents.

Unprotected and exposed to the elements as well as vandalism, the artwork of the upper level began to collapse. Recently, the roof of the church was replaced and the arch in the upper west wall was reinforced with a firm wooden brace. The upper level has been swept of debris, but the interior is still exposed and under threat of further deterioration. The fate of the remains of this extraordinary artistic creation is still in question.

Image iconsnimok_ekrana_2016-08-12_v_14.02.18.png

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