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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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Nadine Lott told ex-partner who later killed her not to ‘threaten’ her, court hears

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Nadine Lott told her former partner not to “threaten” her two weeks before he killed her, the Central Criminal Court has heard.

The jury in the trial of Daniel Murtagh was given transcripts on Tuesday of WhatsApp messages between the accused and his ex-girlfriend in the days and weeks leading up to her death.

In them, the accused asks her if she is “seeing someone from Dublin”. In reply, Ms Lott tells him she is not seeing anyone. Mr Murtagh asks her if there was a “Dublin lad” in her “place” and she tells him to “leave it out”.

She tells him that “nothing is ever going to happen between us again, I want to make that clear.”

In another text from December 5th the accused said: “Nadine I worry about ye, not in love, just don’t slip”.

She replied: “Don’t threaten me either”.

Evidence has previously been given that Mr Murtagh told a motorist that he had “killed my wife because she was with my friend”, just hours after he assaulted her.

John Begley testified last week that he saw a car in a ditch as he was travelling over Bookies Bridge in Laragh on the morning of December 14th and then came across the accused man standing at the side of the road.

“Daniel said to me ‘you don’t know what I’ve done”. I said what did you do. He said ‘I killed my wife’. I didn’t think anything of it. He said it a second time and said he hoped she was not dead. He said ‘she was with my friend’,” said Mr Begley.

Mr Murtagh (34), of Melrose Grove, Bawnogue, Clondalkin, Dublin 22 has pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to the manslaughter of his 30-year-old ex-partner Ms Lott at her apartment in St Mary’s Court, Arklow, Co Wicklow on December 17th, 2019.

The jury has heard that Ms Lott suffered “severe blunt force trauma” and stab injuries at the hands of her former partner “in a sustained and violent attack” in her Arklow home.

They have heard evidence that the injuries to Ms Lott were so serious that she never regained consciousness and died three days later in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin.

An intensive care nurse at the hospital has told the jury that Ms Lott was “completely unrecognisable” and that she had never seen anybody so badly injured. A paramedic who attended to Ms Lott at her home told the jury that the call will “haunt” him for the rest of his career and was one of the most “horrendous scenes” he had ever walked into. The garda who telephoned ambulance control informed them that Ms Lott had been “beaten to a pulp”.

The trial continues before Mr Justice Michael MacGrath and a jury of seven men and five women.

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Five unwritten rules that explain life in Austria

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Adjusting to life in a new country takes time – even more so when navigating unwritten rules of how to act in social and professional situations.

But learning how to live like a local in Austria will not only make it a more pleasant experience, it will also show that you fit in and respect the rules.

To help you further understand Austrian culture, here are five unwritten rules that explain life in Austria.

Always say hello – at least in the countryside

Austrians have a reputation for being direct in their communication, but politeness is also highly valued. 

A prime example is the unwritten rule of saying hello to people – even if you don’t know them.

This applies more in the countryside than in the cities but it’s worth being aware of to avoid making a social faux pas.

According to a Kurier article, failure to greet others will even have you labelled as unfriendly, arrogant or badly educated.

READ MORE: Nine things you might be surprised are actually Austrian

So, if someone is walking towards you, you walk into a bakery (for example) or you see neighbours on the street, then a greeting is expected.

It could be a simple nod of the head, but in most cases it will be “Servus”, “Griaß di” or even “Hallo”.

But don’t try it in a city like Vienna. Saying hello to strangers will just result in funny looks.

Saying hello to someone will show them that you come in peace. Photo by Tom Leishman from Pexels

Always bring food or drink to a social gathering

If invited to a barbecue or dinner party at someone’s house, always take a drink or something to contribute to the meal.

For example, if your host is cooking, offer to bring a salad or a dessert.

If they are taking care of the food then offer to bring a nice bottle of wine or a selection of beers.

If you’re going to a gathering, always bring something – especially if someone tells you it’s not necessary. Photo by Nicole Herrero on Unsplash

And if they are hosting a barbecue, always take your own meat and expect a wide selection of salads and bread that other guests will also bring and share with everyone else.

Not only is this polite, but it will stop other people from talking about you because you violated the unwritten rule.

Don’t expect polite queues at ski lift stations

While Austrian society can be polite in many ways, queueing at ski lift stations in the Alps is a different story.

In fact, it’s a free-for-all and it’s something that both tourists and international residents in Austria have experienced.

REVEALED: What do Austrians think about foreigners?

An Austrian in Tyrol, who asked to remain anonymous, summed it up when he told The Local: “Don’t be civilised and politely queue up at the ski lifts – just push in.”

So, when going skiing in Austria, leave your manners at home, be prepared for others to cut in front of you and get ready to push to the front of the queue.

For a country that loves order and predictability, Austria sure doesn’t know how to queue. Photo by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash

Lateness is not appreciated

People in Austria are generally punctual, like to be on time and expect others to do the same – just like in neighbouring countries Germany and Switzerland.

The unwritten rule applies to both work and social situations, including going out to dinner at a restaurant.

READER QUESTION: Is it legal to drink in public in Austria?

This means if you’re running late it’s polite to call the host and let them know. Likewise if you have a reservation at a restaurant.

However, there is still a limit on how much lateness can be tolerated, with 15 minutes typically the maximum delay before people become annoyed.

Always carry cash

Cash is king in Austria. 

What can I get for this many? Always carry cash in Austria. Photo by Christian Dubovan on Unsplash

It always has been and it probably always will be, with a pre-pandemic study showing that 83 per cent of Austrians preferred paying with cash.

Customers can even expect a grumpy roll of the eyes when trying to pay with cash in some places because it’s so deeply ingrained in the culture.

READ MORE: Why is cash so important to Austrians?

This attitude towards cash is perfectly reflected in the Austrian saying “Nur Bares ist Wahres” (only cash is true) and there are three reasons for this – freedom, anonymity and control. 

Austrians like to have the freedom of not relying on a bank, the anonymity to spend money on whatever they like and control over spending.

For international residents from card-favouring countries like the UK, Ireland and most of Scandinavia, the best way to deal with this is to just get used to carrying cash.



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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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