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Residents Say German Towns Got Little Warning Before Huge Floods

AHRWEILER, Germany (AP) — Like other residents of his town in Germany, Wolfgang Huste knew a flood was coming. What nobody told him, he says, was how bad it would be. The 66-year-old antiquarian bookseller from Ahrweiler said the first serious warning to evacuate or move to higher floors of buildings close to the Ahr…

AHRWEILER, Germany (AP) — Like other residents of his town in Germany, Wolfgang Huste knew a flood was coming. What nobody told him, he says, was how bad it would be.

The 66-year-old antiquarian bookseller from Ahrweiler said the first serious warning to evacuate or move to higher floors of buildings close to the Ahr River came through loudspeaker announcements around 8 p.m. on July 14. Huste then heard a short emergency siren blast and church bells ringing, followed by silence.

“It was spooky, like in a horror film,” he said.

Huste rushed to rescue his car from an underground garage. By the time he parked it on the street, the water stood knee height. Five minutes later, safely indoors, he saw his vehicle floating down the street. He estimates the losses in his store, where books dating back to the early 1500s were destroyed, at more than 200,000 euros ($235,000).

“The warning time was far too short,” Huste said.

With the confirmed death toll from last week’s floods in Germany and neighboring countries passing 210, almost 150 people still missing and the economic cost expected to run into the billions, many have asked why the emergency systems designed to warn people of impending disaster didn’t work.

Sirens in some towns failed when the electricity was cut. In other locations, there were no sirens at all; volunteer firefighters had to knock on people’s doors to tell them what to do. The German weekly Der Spiegel reported that in one suburb of Wuppertal, north of Cologne, people were warned by a monk ringing a bell.

Huste acknowledged that few could have predicted the speed with which the water would rise and rip through towns. But he pointed across the valley to a building that houses Germany’s Federal Office for Civil Protection, where first responders from across the country train for possible disasters.

“In practice, as we just saw, it didn’t work, let’s say, as well as it should,” Huste said. “What the state should have done, it didn’t do. At least not until much later.”

An excavator at work on the banks of the Erft River during clearing operations after flooding in North Rhine-Westphalia.

German authorities did receive early warnings from the European Flood Awareness System. These made their way through official channels, putting firefighters on heightened alert as well as smartphone users who had installed disaster warning apps, but such apps aren’t widely used.

Local officials responsible for triggering disaster alarms in the Ahr valley on the first night of flooding have kept a low profile since the deluge. At least 132 people were killed in the Ahr valley alone.

Authorities in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate state took charge of the disaster response in the wake of the floods, but they declined to comment on what mistakes might have been made on the night the disaster struck.

“People are looking at a life in ruins here. Some have lost relatives, there were many dead,” said Thomas Linnertz, the state official now coordinating the disaster response. “I c

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