Four soldiers in rubber suits wade across the highway from car to car. The water is just below the car windows. Arriving at a car, one of the soldiers wipes a window that is covered with a layer of dried mud. He peers in through the window – nothing – and writes with a gloved finger ‘learn’ (empty) in the dirt on the rear window. On to the next car.
Closer to the viaduct, a truck sits on top of two other trucks. The force of the water that has raged over this road from Erftstadt to Cologne must have been immense. An army tank, half in the water, pulls one of the trucks free with a loud noise. Further on, a twisted guardrail is sawn to pieces.
On Thursday and Friday the water was still too high to see that there are cars, 28 in total, on this low-lying stretch of highway. Now that the water is receding, here in Erftstadt and elsewhere in the federal states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, the extent of the damage is becoming apparent. But even though the salvage work has started here, the acute danger for Erftstadt has not yet passed. The torrential rains collapsed the walls of a gravel pit, followed by massive landslides. Entire houses in the Blessem district disappeared into the depths. It is still unclear whether there are any victims in Erfstadt. At least 140 people have been killed in the floods across Germany.
“We tried to evacuate everyone yesterday with six helicopters and 25 rescue boats,” says Elmar Mettke, spokesman for the volunteer fire brigade, lawyer in daily life. An estimated 170 people were rescued. “I cannot say whether everyone is safe: some were on their roofs and initially refused to be taken by the helicopter.” There are rescue brigades with boats from Hamburg and Brandenburg at work, fire brigade and ambulance personnel from various federal states. Who coordinates all this? “I hope someone up there has the overview,” sighs Mettke.
From there, the Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the North Rhine-Westphalia Prime Minister and candidate-chancellor Armin Laschet (CDU) will visit Erftstadt on Saturday afternoon to speak with victims and emergency services. Steinmeier, in a short statement: “In times of need, our country stands strong together.” Laschet also praises the solidarity within the affected areas and the help from other states. Later, Laschet was harshly criticized on online channels for laughing widely during Steinmeier’s serious words, apparently after a joke by himself or by local administrator Frank Rock.
Back from vacation early
For Armin Laschet, and the other candidates for the chancellorship, the gauntlet is running these days. The severe weather and devastation will continue to dominate the news for the coming weeks, up to and including the national elections on September 26. This makes the climate crisis irrevocably one of the main themes of the elections. But straining the flood too much for the campaign will soon be interpreted as opportunism again.
On Thursday, during his quick first visit to stricken Altena and Hagen, Laschet called for more rapid implementation of climate regulation. He later said in a television interview that because of a “day like this” he does not immediately change his political course. On Saturday in Erftstadt, Laschet avoids the theme and prefers to act as the pragmatic Prime Minister. When a reporter asks about it, Laschet replies that it is now also about climate adaptation: facilities that make living and living in a changing climate safe.
The Greens’ candidate, Annalena Baerbock, returned from vacation on Thursday and expressed her condolences to the victims and relatives via Twitter. In addition, she pleaded for prompt and “unbureaucratic” aid to those affected. The fact that the climate will now be the focus of the election campaign gives party leader Baerbock, who made a lot of mistakes after a successful start, the opportunity to set the tone again.
The candidate for the Social Democrats Olaf Scholz (SPD), also Minister of Finance and Vice-Chancellor, also broke off his holiday and rushed to the disaster area on Thursday. Scholz spoke about climate politics, but also promised financial support.
Diesel and petrol
In Erfstadt, the first financial aid is indeed fast: there is a long queue in front of a mobile bank branch, where everyone who had to leave their home is paid 200 euros in cash. “For the necessities of life,” says a man in line, “we have nothing left!” A bank employee: “We were able to help hundreds of people today”
And as for the environment, the town smells strongly of diesel – dozens of generators provide power, which has been cut in many streets. An iridescent film floats on the brown water where the soldiers salvage the cars, from the petrol that runs from the destroyed cars.