German interior minister rejects criticism over lack of flood warnings
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 places worst-hit. In the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne at least 117 people have been killed, and that number is expected to rise as the clear-up reveals more victims.
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 people. 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 places worst-hit.
In the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne at least 117 people have been killed, and that number is expected to rise as the clear-up reveals more victims. The high death toll has raised questions around why so many people seemed to have been surprised by the flash flooding. Michael Theurer, a senior member of the opposition Free Democrats (FDP), said in an interview with news agency DPA that the toll revealed a "systemic failure". Susanne Hennig-Wellow, chief of the left-wing Linke party, on Sunday called for Seehofer to step down.
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.
"It's not Berlin that declares a state of emergency, that is done locally," he said, adding that the channels of communication for which the federal government was responsible had worked. Seehofer was speaking on a tour of flood-stricken areas in which he visited the Ahrweiler district as well as the Steinbachtal dam, which had been at risk of breach for several days prompting the evacuation of thousands of people downstream.
Local authorities said on Monday the dam had been stabilized and that residents could return to their homes later in the day. 'TERRIFYING SCENES'
The worst of the flooding saw entire communities cut off without 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.
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