Two years after flood disaster
Life is slowly returning to the Ahr Valley
07/14/2023 09:24 am
In July 2021, heavy rainfall devastates Rhineland-Palatinate and NRW, dozens of people die. Two years later, there are still a number of completely destroyed houses. The construction drags on. Victims talk about their lives after the disaster.
The 90-year-old Franz Kluckert moves back into his house in the wine-growing town of Dernau around two years after the flood disaster in the Ahr Valley. He still lives with his wife in a makeshift tiny house on the other side of the river. “It’s slowly progressing, I didn’t think it would take that long,” says Kluckert, who comes from East Prussia and has been at home in the idyllic valley for around 40 years.
Some of Kluckert’s neighbors are already living in their renovated houses and are busy with the final work, such as the front gardens. In between, someone wrote “Thank you” on the mud-spattered facade of a house badly damaged by the tsunami and painted a heart next to it. That means the many volunteers. The owner of this house did not return after the disaster and has since died, neighbors report.
At least 136 people died in the flood disaster from July 14 to 15, 2021 in western Germany in Rhineland-Palatinate alone – 135 of them in the Ahr Valley and one man in the Eifel. One person is still missing. 766 were injured. In neighboring North Rhine-Westphalia, 49 people died in floods after extremely heavy rain.
In the Ahr Valley, roads, bridges, gas, electricity and water lines as well as around 9,000 buildings were destroyed or badly damaged over a length of 40 kilometers. Around 42,000 people were affected. There are still badly damaged houses and bridges in the Ahr valley that look as if the stinking, destructive masses of water had just rushed through the valley. Houses are still being demolished. But also excavators, site fences and scaffolding characterize the picture in the valley with the steep vineyards – the largest contiguous red wine growing area in Germany.
“There is less life here than before”
On the evening of the disaster, he tried to open the doors on the ground floor in the dark to see how high the Ahr was, says Kluckert. Luckily he couldn’t get it open – because the water masses were already pressing against it so much. “Otherwise I would be dead too.” He and his wife escaped to the top floor and were taken out of his flooded house the next day by a Bundeswehr helicopter, he says. “The bakery opened again a few days ago,” says a 75-year-old neighbor of Kluckert, whose house had water up to the first floor on the night of the disaster. “But there is less life here than before.” Above all, the tourism infrastructure is a long time coming.
“Bitter,” says a teacher from Remscheid and swallows. “I can’t believe the water was so high.” The 57-year-old points to edges that are still clearly visible at a height of almost ten meters in the wine-growing town of Mayschoß. He’s been out and about in the Ahr Valley for a few days by bike and camper van – for the first time since the flood and doesn’t feel particularly well, “like a disaster tourist”. That’s why he prefers not to say his name.
“It’s frightening that it still looks like this after two years. That’s a family fate,” says the teacher from North Rhine-Westphalia, concerned. “My wife and I used to come here often.” Because the narrow Ahr valley is something very special, he doesn’t know anything comparable on the Rhine and Moselle. This time his wife cannot be there, but he compares digital photos with her from the last trip in 2019 and today. “I’m curious to see how long it will be before you can live here to some extent again.”
“It can’t be rebuilt in five years”
“Wait, wait, wait,” is how Tim Himmes from a family of showmen in Schuld describes the mood. “We still don’t have a real street in front of the house,” says the 23-year-old. And the reconstruction of his family’s house is progressing, but much more slowly than expected. His sister Anna always has to keep a very close eye on her little son. “There is no playground here yet, not even a swing or a slide,” says the 25-year-old. “The older children play in the rubble.”
The listed Nepomuk Bridge in the Ahr town of Rech brought a lot of suffering to the people in the Ahr Valley during the flood disaster and is now known nationwide. Caravans smashed against the pillars of the bridge from 1723, debris blocked the water masses, the bridge was badly damaged and parts of the town center were completely torn away. The German Foundation for Monument Protection and the German Association for Art History still want the building to be preserved. But there is a demolition permit.
In the dispute over the future of the bridge, the mayor resigned. His successor Thomas Hostert emphasizes that the decision is still valid, but that there have also been new complaints against the demolition. The flood destroyed a lot of things that had developed over centuries, says the chairman of the board of directors of the reconstruction company Zukunft Mittelahr, Martin Schell, at the Nepomuk Bridge. “It can’t be rebuilt in five years.”