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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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HSE working to amend booster system as people receive multiple appointments

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The Health Service Executive (HSE) is working to amend the coronavirus vaccine system, as multiple channels offering third jabs has caused challenges for the booster campaign, HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor has said.

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, Ms O’Connor explained that the booster vaccine was available through vaccination centres, general practitioners and pharmacies.

Some people had gone to their local pharmacy to get their booster vaccine and then had received an appointment at a vaccination centre, she said. She called on people to cancel their vaccination centre appointment if they had received their booster through their GP or pharmacy.

Ms O’Connor’s comments come after Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Tuesday that there were 87,000 no-shows for boosters last week, and the chairman of the Irish Medical Organisation’s GP committee, Dr Denis McCauley, described the non-attendances as “very disrespectful”.

Ms O’Connor said the priority for the HSE was to get as many people fully vaccinated as possible.

When asked about the lower levels of people in the 60-69 age cohort who have received their booster vaccine, Ms O’Connor said that not everyone in that age group would have had their second vaccine more than five months ago. That was “a natural limiter”.

Ms O’Connor said people possibly were apprehensive or busier, now that many were back at work or were preparing for Christmas, but the vaccine was important as was the booster.

To date more than a million people have received their booster vaccine, she added, and appointments will be offered to people aged between 50 and 59 from Thursday.

“We will also have walk-in centres open to people to get their vaccine and as ever we encourage everybody to avail of the vaccine. It’s really important, especially with a new variant, that we try to protect as many people as possible,” Ms O’Connor said.

‘Be respectful’

Meanwhile, Dr McAuley told Newstalk Breakfast that there were very few no-shows to booster appointments at GP surgeries, because people know their GP personally.

Now was not the time for “messing”, he said in relation to people failing to attend their appointments at vaccine centres.

“If you get a vaccine appointment, make sure that you go there rather than getting your hair done or going shopping – or if it is a work thing, stay on the helpline to get a new appointment.

“Be respectful of the mass vaccination centres. These are people who are working very hard and it is very disrespectful to have over 80,000 people not turn up in one week. It is not appropriate. You wouldn’t do it to your GP so why are you doing it to these healthcare workers.”

There was also a concern that some people were waiting to see what happens with the Omicron variant before getting their booster. Dr McCauley said that the booster would greatly reduce the chances of picking up the virus or having to go into hospital

Dr McCauley said there needed to be “a call to arms” for people to get vaccinated and he warned that when more information about Omicron emerged, booster appointments could be harder to come by.

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All you need to know on getting the Moderna vaccine as a booster

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People due to receive their Covid-19 booster vaccine in coming weeks will primarily be offered the Moderna dose at HSE vaccination centres.

The HSE is reported to have large supplies of Moderna due to expire next month, so that will be the main vaccine administered over coming weeks to the over-60s, over-50s, healthcare workers, and younger people in vulnerable groups – though it will be restricted to people over 30.

Anecdotally there are indications some people may be reluctant to take the Moderna vaccine. This may be due to Irish stocks about to expire shortly and/or confusion about its efficacy. This follows the company’s chief executive Stéphane Bancel warning last week the Moderna jab may not be as effective against Omicron as it had been with the Delta variant.

The HSE has confirmed recipients will have no choice on what vaccine they are given.

What type of coronavirus vaccine is the Moderna jab?

It is a new kind of synthetic “mRNA vaccine” – the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is from the same stable. They provide excellent protection against severe illness and hospitalisation – and have played a critical role in reducing Covid-19 deaths since being approved. A downside, however, is that the Moderna version must be kept at -20 degrees.

Should people be worried about receiving a soon to be out-of-date vaccine?





Total doses distributed to Ireland Total doses administered in Ireland


10,093,390


8,193,802

In short no, as they retain the ability to boost antibody production within currently approved time spans – though inevitably potency wanes over time. The Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen (Johnson&Johnson) vaccines were put on the market with emergency use authorisation of up to six months.

This compares with a shelf life of two to three years for most vaccines and other medicines. This is an “inevitable consequence of getting the vaccines out of the door as quickly as possible”, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Gino Martini told the journal BMJ.

Months later, these “emergency” expiry dates remain in force for these vaccines. For approved Covid-19 vaccines, the initial shelf lives were based on data available at the time of submission for regulatory approval.

The long-term shelf life has not been extended for any of the vaccines. A shelf life extension would require supporting evidence from relevant stability studies. Vaccine manufacturers are monitoring batches of vaccines with the aim of providing a longer shelf life; probably the usual two years.

What about the Omicron threat?

While Moderna said existing vaccines including its mRNA version will probably be less effective against the Omicron variant, most experts believe they will continue to provide significant protection against severe disease and hospitalisation. It should be stressed, however, definitive indication has yet to emerge. That will be a matter of weeks, if not days.

Moderna has confirmed it is developing an Omicron-specific booster though manufacturing the new vaccine would take time. Tens of millions of doses could be available in the first quarter of 2022, but scale-up would not happen until the second quarter – provided it is shown such boosters are required.

What is the latest indication on the benefits of mixing vaccines?

Evidence supporting a mixing of vaccine doses has hardened over recent months. A study this week shows combining a first dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine with a second dose of either the Moderna or the Novavax jabs results in far higher levels of neutralising antibodies and T-cells compared with two doses of the AstraZeneca jab.

This finding also has important implications for lower-income countries that have not yet completed their primary vaccination campaigns as it suggests you do not need access to mRNA vaccines – and therefore ultra-cold storage facilities – to trigger an extremely potent Covid-19 vaccine response.

The study also bolsters confidence that using the Moderna vaccine as a booster dose in people who have previously received the AstraZeneca jab should result in high levels of neutralising antibodies and T-cells.

It follows separate data published last week suggesting the Pfizer and Moderna booster jabs can dramatically strengthen the body’s immune defences.

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Woman (90s) dies following single-vehicle crash in Co Clare

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A woman in her 90s has died following a single-vehicle crash in Co Clare in the early hours of Tuesday.

The incident occurred at about 12.30am at Annagh, Miltown Malbay. The woman, who was the driver and sole occupant of the car involved in the crash, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Her body was removed to Limerick University Hospital, where gardaí say a postmortem will take place at a later date.

The road has been closed to facilitate an exam by Garda forensic collision investigators, and local diversions are in place.

Gardaí have appealed for witnesses – particularly road users who may have camera footage – to come forward. Anyone with information can contact Kilrush Garda station (065 908 0550), the confidential line (1800 666 111), or any Garda station.

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