German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer rejected criticism the government had failed to sufficiently warn people of last week’s floods, as the death toll from the country’s worst natural disaster in almost six decades rose above 160.
Flooding has devastated parts of Western Europe since last Wednesday, with the German states of Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, as well as parts of Belgium, among the worst hit.
In the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne, at least 117 people were killed, and police warned that the death toll would almost certainly rise as the clean-up continues from floods whose cost may run as high as 3 billion euros ($3.5 billion).
The high death toll has raised questions around why so many people seemed to have been surprised by the flash flooding, with opposition politicians suggesting the death toll revealed serious failings in Germany’s flood preparedness.
Seehofer said in response that the German National Meteorological Service (DWD) issues warnings to Germany’s 16 states and from there to districts and communities that decide at a local level how to respond.
“It would be completely inconceivable for such a catastrophe to be managed centrally from any one place. You need local knowledge,” Seehofer told journalists on Monday.
Criticism of the emergency response was “cheap election campaign rhetoric” he said.
The devastation of the floods, attributed by meteorologists to the effects of climate change, could shake up Germany’s federal election in September, which until now had seen little discussion of climate.
Accompanying Seehofer on his tour of flood-stricken areas, disaster management agency head Armin Schuster said that warning systems had worked perfectly: more than 150 flood warning messages had been sent.
Local authorities said that the Steinbachtal Dam visited by Seehofer – which had been at risk of breach for several days, prompting the evacuation of thousands – had been stabilised and that residents could return home later on Monday.
Clean-up work was continuing in the Ahrweiler district, but with many of the 170 still missing thought to be in areas authorities had not yet reached or where waters had not yet receded, few were likely to be found alive.
“Our focus is on giving certainty as soon as possible,” Stefan Heinz, a senior district police officer said. “And that includes identifying the victims.”
The worst of the flooding cut off entire communities from power or communications. Residents were trapped in their homes by fast-rising floodwaters and a number of houses collapsed, leaving what German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday described as “terrifying” scenes.
The DWD weather service had warned on Monday last week that heavy rain was heading to western Germany and that flooding was very likely. On Wednesday morning, it said on Twitter that the risk of flooding was increasing and called on the population to seek guidance from local authorities.
The German government is readying a relief package for hard-hit communities in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, and also in Bavaria and Saxony, where there were fresh floods over the weekend.
One government source told Reuters on Monday that immediate relief worth around 400 million euros ($340 million) was being discussed, half of which would be paid by the federal government and half by the states.
The relief package, which is also expected to include billions of euros for longer-term rebuilding efforts, is due to be presented to the cabinet on Wednesday.