But few of these early warnings seem to have been passed on to residents early enough – and clearly – to catch them completely off guard. Today, the question arises as to whether the chain of communication from the central European level to the regions is functioning.
“There was clearly a serious communication breakdown, which in some cases tragically claimed the lives of people,” said Jeff Da Costa, a doctoral student in hydrometeorology at the University of Reading in the UK.
Da Costa is focusing on flood warning systems in his research, and his own parents’ house in Luxembourg was hit over the weekend. He said experiments last week show that there is often a gap between weather warnings issued by scientists and the actions actually taken by officials on the ground.
Some of the warnings, including in Luxembourg, were not issued until after the flooding began, he said.
“People, including my own family, were left on their own with no indication of what to do, and given them no opportunity to prepare,” he said.
In many severely affected places, residents were overwhelmed by the speed and ferocity with which the water was arriving.
In Germany, as elections approached, the flood issue quickly became politicized and officials are shifting the blame where they can.
In the Ahr Valley, a particularly flooded area in western Germany, senior officials told CNN that warnings were issued before the disaster, but said many residents were not taking them enough seriously, because they weren’t used to such intense flooding.
Some may have attempted to collect provisions and move their valuables to safety, while others thought they would be safe on the second floor of their house, but eventually had to be airlifted from the roof. .
One of the hardest hit towns was Schuld, a picturesque town in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
Schuld mayor Helmut Lussi said the flooding was completely unpredictable, pointing to the fact that the town had only experienced two previous events of heavy flooding, in 1790 and another in 1910.
“I think the flood protection systems would not have helped me because you cannot calculate what is happening to the Ahr River with such bodies of water,” he told reporters at the weekend. end.
Da Costa said he can sympathize with the mayor, but his remarks show a lack of understanding of what good planning and management can do.
“His views on the predictability of flooding, both at the long-term scale and at the immediate scale of the ability to provide immediate warnings, are completely wrong and may show one of the difficulties in communicating risks to people. people or city officials who fundamentally do not understand the environmental risk, ”he said.
“People should also keep in mind that although flood warnings cannot stop a flood, they can help people move themselves and their belongings to safety,” he added. .
“If the mayor of Schuld and his town had a plan, clearly communicated to every household, business and institution, so that everyone would know what to do in the event of different flood scenarios, then at least they would be as well prepared as they could be. ‘be,’ he said, adding that if he and other regional leaders had done so, fewer people might have died.
“In times of crisis, everyone needs to know what they’re doing. That’s why we repeat building fire evacuations, even when we don’t expect there to be a fire,” he said. -he declares.
CNN contacted Lussi’s office but did not receive an immediate response.
In Belgium too, communication and organization seem to have been a problem. The mayor of Chaudfontaine, a town in the province of Liège, said he had received an “orange alert” warning him of rising waters, but argued that it clearly should have been red earlier.
“We could see to what extent the available equipment was not adapted to the situations we saw. I am thinking in particular of the helicopters which were unable to work in the area”, declared the mayor Daniel Bacquelaine to the RTBF. “The boat rescues were absolutely essential and we had to call on the private sector for boats with sufficient engine power and people to steer them. “
In the Netherlands, just across its borders from the flood-devastated areas of Germany and Belgium, the situation is totally different. The Netherlands also experienced extreme rainfall – although less abundant than in Germany and Belgium – and they did not come out unscathed. But its cities are not fully submerged, and not a single person has died. Officials were better prepared and were able to communicate with people quickly, said Prof Jeroen Aerts, head of the water and climate risk department at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
“We better see the wave coming and where it was going,” Aerts told CNN.
The Netherlands has a long history of water management and their success in dealing with this disaster could offer the world a model for flood management, especially as climate change is expected to make extreme rainfall events more frequent.
The country has been battling the swollen sea and rivers for nearly a millennium. Three major European rivers – the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt – have their deltas in the Netherlands, and with much of its land below sea level, the government says 60% of the country is threatened with flood. Much of the country is essentially sinking.
Its water management infrastructure is one of the best in the world – comprising giant walls with movable arms the size of two football fields, coastal dunes reinforced by some 12 million cubic meters of sand per year, and simple things, like dikes and rivers more room to inflate by lowering their beds – or floors – and widening their banks.
Its strength lies largely in its organization. The country’s infrastructure is managed by a branch of government devoted solely to water, the General Directorate of Public Works and Water Management, which manages some 1,500 kilometers of man-made defenses.
The country’s water problems are managed by a network of locally elected bodies whose sole function is to deal with everything related to water, from flooding to sewage, said Aerts. The first of these local “water boards” was established in the city of Leiden in 1255 – so long ago the country realized it needed strong water management. ‘water.
“It’s a unique situation that we have,” Aerts said. “Apart from the national government, the provinces and the cities, you have a fourth layer, the water boards, which are completely focused on water management.”
Boards have the ability to levy taxes independently, so they are not subject to the ups and downs of national coffers.
“Water is involved in the tourism sector, it is involved in industry, in the building sector,” Aerts said. “And what you see is that in different countries government policies are really sectoral.”
In the Netherlands, he called water boards a “glue” that holds everything together and can ensure, for example, that a proposal for a building on a floodplain has all parties involved in communication.
The website of the water management agency simply and clearly summarizes what it is trying to do. “It rains more, the sea rises and the rivers have to carry more and more water”, we can read. “Flood protection is and remains existential.”
This story has been updated to reflect a death toll revised by the Belgian authorities.
CNN’s Atika Shubert, Vasco Cotovio and Joseph Ataman contributed reporting.
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