‘We need a lot of help’: Germans sift through debris after devastating floods

Trucks, diggers and volunteers try to clear mud and ruined belongings from wrecked homes and businesses

A brown line one and a half metres high on the kitchen wall marks where the waters reached when Christian Ulrich’s house was inundated. The electrician stands amid the mud-splattered walls and his voice breaks as he recalls how he had barely enough time after the warning came to reach the cellar to get food and water and send his mother up the stairs. He had just managed to let in the neighbours who had banged on the door for help, when there was an “almighty crash – like an explosion” as a huge wave of water rolled in from the back and front of the house, so strong it pushed out the front door and many of the windows.

Rubbish and destroyed home furnishings are piled up in front of the old city wall
Rubbish and destroyed home furnishings are piled up in front of the old city wall Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • Rubbish and destroyed furnishings are piled up in front of the old city wall

The rubbish and destroyed home furnishings pile up in a huge heap in front of the old city wall.
The rubbish and destroyed home furnishings pile up in a huge heap in front of the old city wall. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
The rubbish and destroyed home furnishings pile up in a huge heap in front of the old city wall.
Ahr Valley one week after the flood
BAD NEUENAHR, GERMANY - JULY 23: Bad Neuenahr one week after the flood on July 18, 2021 in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany. Reportage with Kate Connolly. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes)
Photograph: Thomas Lohnes

Eight days on, Ulrich, standing in the ruins, says he can finally “breathe again”, thanks to a man on a mechanical digger outside on Bachemer Strasse, who has spent the last few days on the street clearing the rubble from Ulrich’s family home and others. The downstairs furniture and fittings, and the contents of the cellar, still fill the street, but he says the smelly heap is now only a fraction of the height it was. “We are just so grateful to these people. But we are saddened that there has so far been very little official help,” he says.

A banner hanging from an upstairs window, where Ulrich’s mother is trying to recover from the trauma, reads: “Thank you dear helpers”.

Volunteers chain mud from the premises of a physiotherapy practice to the street while a helper takes a break
Volunteers chain mud from the premises of a physiotherapy practice to the street while a helper takes a break Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • Volunteers carry mud from a physiotherapy practice into the street via bucket chain while a helper takes a break

Ingo Mellenthin, who is operating the digger – lent by a landscaping company – with an efficient calm, travelled from Herten, 100 miles away, to volunteer. His son Jonas is in an adjacent street doing the same. “We thought we’d better come here to help, knowing we had skills they might need,” says the self-employed builder, who had been due to go on holiday.

A similar scenario is playing out in thousands of homes across this spa town in Rhineland-Palatinate state – all of which are without running water, electricity, or gas – and in turn in scores of towns and villages across the region, some of which are still cut off. Almost 42,000 people have been affected, many losing their homes. In Rhineland-Palatinate alone, 128 people have died. A further 766 were injured and 155 people remain missing.

Udo Förtsch’s antiques shop
Udo Förtsch’s antiques shop Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • Udo Förtsch’s antiques shop

In street after street, lines of mud-coated volunteers scoop the gunge from cellars and ground floors in buckets and pass them on. The last in the chain dumps the mud in the street. Many punctuate the work with a joke or a song. One group of women and girls, calling themselves “Paw Patrol”, are clearing the cellar of a physiotherapy practice on Ahrhutstrasse. “It’s time to help, simple as that,” says Hatice Sadet. The youngest helper spotted is seven-year-old Eno, in wellington boots, who alongside many others is pushing a shovel into the thick sticky grey mud which has to be watered down to stop it from clogging the drains.

On the market square, Hartmut Schönhöfer is busy stripping the plaster from the walls of the picturesque 18th-century Marktbrunnen (market fountain) pub, which he and his wife, Martina Caspers, the owner, had spent the best part of lockdown painstaking renovating. It was due to open in three weeks’ time.

Maike Sperlich helps to load rubbish from the houses into containers and trucks.
Maike Sperlich helps to load rubbish from the houses into containers and trucks. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • Maike Sperlich helps to load rubbish from the houses into containers and trucks

“When the waters came it was like pinball as it seemed to come from all over the place and really fast,” he says. “Cars were swimming down the street.

“None of us died – for that we’re grateful,” he adds. “But our tragedy is that we had put €300,000 net (£256,000), into the renovation and we’ll need another €150,000-€200,000 to restore it now. But we have no elemental damage insurance [to cover storms and severe weather]. It was just not available.” The story is repeated in homes and businesses across the town.

Bundeswehr soldiers distribute water
Bundeswehr soldiers distribute water Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
Bundeswehr soldiers distribute water
Bundeswehr soldiers distribute water Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
A helper removes mud from a residential building
A helper removes mud from a residential building Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • Top: Bundeswehr soldiers distribute water. Above: A helper removes mud from a residential building

At Dr von Ehrenwall’s clinic for psychiatry and neurology, the deputy administration manager, Heike Heideck, delegates jobs to staff who have gathered to help with the cleanup. About 150 patients had to be moved to the top floors where they stayed the night before being evacuated to a makeshift shelter in a Haribo sweet factory.

In Kurgartenstrasse in another district, on a strolling promenade popular with rich weekenders from Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and further afield, the Förtsches are sorting through the remains of their antique shop. “Here, take this as a souvenir,” Udo Förtsch half jokes, picking up a mud-smeared Marc Chagall print. His wife Uschi washes down some brass statues and a glass vase and places them in a plastic box. But more or less all the rest of their €150,000 of stock is destroyed.

A helper distributes cake baked by other helpers.
A helper distributes cake baked by other helpers. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • Above and right: a helper distributes home-baked cake. Far right: Helpers are treated to free bratwursts and chips

Helper distributes cake
Helper distributes cake Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
Helpers are treated to free bratwursts and chips
Helpers are treated to free bratwursts and chips Photograph: Thomas Lohnes

They are not insured either. “We planned to retire in a couple of years. We can forget that now,” he says. A fellow shop owner comes to tell them that their landlord’s 18-year-old daughter was drowned as she tried to get the car out of the garage as the waters came. “We are the lucky ones,” Uschi Förtsch says, wiping away tears.

Steps away, the curtains of the five-star Steigenberger hotel flap in the wind. The windows were smashed by the force of the water, their frames buckling along with the pipes and lamp-posts outside. A ballroom is thick with mud, and plates, cutlery and champagne buckets are scattered across the floor. A Peugeot has been flung against the hotel terrace. “It’s like Bosnia after the war,” says Tim, from a Gummersbach firm specialising in construction cleanups who has just arrived and is surveying the scene from the banks of the brown, fast-flowing River Ahr.

Benjamin Monschau, right, and his helper Johannes Ehmer shovel hard mud from his grandfather’s grave
Benjamin Monschau, right, and his helper Johannes Ehmer shovel hard mud from his grandfather’s grave Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
Destroyed and silted graves in the cemetery.
Destroyed and silted graves in the cemetery. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • Top: Benjamin Monschau, right, and his helper Johannes Ehmer shovel mud from his grandfather’s grave. Above: destroyed and silted graves in the cemetery

In the Ahrweiler district a non-stop column of trucks and tractors, lent or driven by local farmers, gardening centres and construction firms, drive through the Ahrtor, one of four gates in the old town’s ancient wall, and queue up to tip seemingly unending loads of the mud-drenched contents of homes and businesses – washing machines, carpets, wine barrels, bird houses, shop models, car seats – on to a huge heap.

A digger operator is tasked with compressing the mound as much as possible and loading it onto trucks which are transporting it to incinerators across Germany and the Netherlands. Spotting a red carpet from a hotel or restaurant in the waste, he picks it up in the teeth of his excavator bucket and waves it at his fellow workers, offering a brief moment of levity amid the misery.

A toy rat
A toy rat Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
An angel figure stands in the window frame of a house
An angel figure stands in the window frame of a house Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
A figurine amid the ruin
A figurine amid the ruin Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
A figurine found amid the ruin
A figurine found amid the ruin Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • Figurines found amid the wreckage

The efficiency of the operation is fine-tuned to the extent that lorry maintenance engineers are on hand to offer repairs for everything from tyre punctures to loose screws, for which demand is high.

The Auths have driven their “Brat King” (Grill King) catering truck the 160 miles from Fulda, stocked with thousands of sausages and other donations from butchers, supermarkets and individuals, to feed helpers and residents.

A muddied town centre thoroughfare
A muddied town centre thoroughfare Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • A muddied town centre thoroughfare

Maria, whose restaurant, Delphi, is in ruins, together with Lily, a waitress, tuck into a currywurst and chips as they take a break from cleaning up. Lily recalls leaving work early after a flood warning came late on the night of Wednesday 14 July, and driving on the bridge over the river Ahr towards home. “I swear I could feel it shifting,” she says. Several cars were on it when it subsequently collapsed. “I think if I’d been 15 minutes later I might have been swept away.” She points to the bridge, just metres away, which appears to have snapped in two. An excavator trying to clear the rubble around it has just toppled over into the fast-flowing water, but the driver has been hauled to safety.

A ruined road surface in the town centre
A ruined road surface in the town centre Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • A ruined road surface in the town centre

Close by, next to the riverbank, part of the fire station has collapsed, its garage doors buckled, though luckily the fire brigade managed to drive the vehicles out in time.

A few metres further on, the town’s cemetery lies desecrated. Cars and a van are tossed among broken gravestones and there is hardly a blade of grass in sight. Benjamin Monschau tends to the grave of his grandfather Erich. The headstone is still standing but, with the help of a friend, he’s trying to free the rest from the mass of sticky mud. “I didn’t want to let my grandmother see it like this,” he says.

Bad Neuenahr one week after the flood
Bad Neuenahr one week after the flood Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • Bad Neuenahr a week after the flood

Masks are worn here primarily to protect from mud, dust and bacteria, rather than coronavirus. A muddy handprint has become a hallmark of the cleanup effort.

Elisabeth Parschau has placed two of hers on the front of her boyfriend’s T-shirt. “What we need right now is a lot of love, and to hope it keeps coming – the town will need a lot of help in the coming months,” she says. She is sitting playing her piano flanked by two water tanks delivered earlier by the army, outside their house with its bucolic courtyard laced with grapevines.

Elisabeth Parschaun plays her piano in the street
Elisabeth Parschaun plays her piano in the street Photograph: Thomas Lohnes
  • Elisabeth Parschaun plays her ruined piano in the street

The instrument, which stood in half a metre of water, is ruined, she says. But before it’s carted away with the rest of the debris, she has chalked the invitation “Spiel mich” – play me – on it. Residents and rescue workers in need of a respite have been readily taking up the offer.

Contributor

Kate Connolly in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler. Photographs by Thomas Lohnes

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