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Europe Floods: Picking Up The Pieces

As the magnitude of the destruction becomes clear, European scientists are wrestling with how such damage could happen in some of the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries

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Divya Dhadd
Divya Dhadd
Journalist

GERMANY: As communities devastated by the series of flash floods in parts of western Europe start picking up the pieces, they are wondering how despite Europe’s major investments in flood forecasting and preparation catalyzed by previous inundations, it all went so wrong, so fast.

At least 195 people died in the catastrophic floods of Germany and Belgium, which came quickly and forcefully. 

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Hannah Cloke, the hydrologist and flood forecaster at the University of Reading said: Researchers “were stupidly congratulating ourselves that we were forecasting something so early. The assumption was that would be really helpful.” 

Instead, she was shocked to see the calibre of damage and death caused despite the ample warnings. “We should not be seeing this number of people dying in 2021 from floods. It just should not be happening,” she said.

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It is no surprise that floods already rank as the most destructive natural hazard in Northern Europe. The deadly 2002 floods led to the launch of the European Flood Awareness System, to provide emergency managers with early warnings. But last week the speed and intensity of the flooding in Germany—especially in neighbouring towns of smaller creeks took most people by surprise. “There was simply no time,” said flood expert Fred Hattermann. “Then, of course, people run to save their cars and whatever and bad things happen.”

Now questions are being raised over whether the chain of communication from the central European level to regions is working, as some early warnings appear to have been passed on to residents on time — and clearly — enough, catching them completely off guard. 

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“There was clearly a serious breakdown in communication, which in some cases has tragically cost people’s lives,” said Jeff Da Costa, a PhD researcher at the University of Reading, U.K.

Da Costo focuses on flood warning systems in his research. “Some of the warnings — including in Luxembourg — were only issued after the flood had hit,” he said. 

Some researchers are examining how people responded to flood warnings.

In the badly flooded area of Ahr valley of western Germany, senior officials told CNN that warnings were issued ahead of the disaster, but said many residents didn’t take them seriously enough, because they were in denial that such intense flooding could actually happen.

Some might have attempted to collect valuables and rescue themselves, while others thought they would be safe on the second floor of their homes but ended up having to be airlifted off the roof.

Also Read: Devastating Flash Floods In Germany And Belgium Kills More Than 120 People

With an election around the corner in Germany, the issue of flooding has quickly become politicized, and officials are deflecting blame where they can.

Climate change: The ultimate catastrophe

For years, scientists have warned climate change will mean more flooding in Europe and elsewhere.

Warmer air holds more moisture, which can translate into heavier rainfall with more intensity. According to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, by 2100, flood damage on the continent could cost as much as €48 billion per year—up from €7.8 billion now—if management is not improved, and the number of people affected could more than double to some 350,000. 

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