June 16, 2024

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Deadly floods inundated parts of Europe, but the Netherlands avoided fatalities. Here’s why

As communities devastated by the catastrophic flooding in parts of western Europe start picking up the pieces, they are wondering how it all went so wrong, so fast. After all, Europe has a world-leading warning system that issued regular alerts for days before floods engulfed entire villages.

But at least 195 people still died in Germany and Belgium, in floods that came quickly and forcefully. The Copernicus Emergency Management Service said it sent more than 25 warnings for specific regions of the Rhine and Maas river basins in the days leading up to the flooding, through its European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), well before heavy rains triggered the flash flooding.
But few of these early warnings appear to have been passed on to residents early — and clearly — enough, catching them completely off guard. Now questions are being raised over whether the chain of communication from the central European level to regions is working.
“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 in hydrometeorology at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.
Da Costa focuses on flood warning systems in his research, and his own parents’ home in Luxembourg happened to be hit over the weekend. He said the experiences of the past week show there is often a gap between the weather warnings scientists issue and the actions actually taken by people in charge on the ground.

Some of the warnings — including in Luxembourg — were only issued after the flood had hit, he said.
“People, including my own family, were left to their own devices without any indication on what to do, and giving them no opportunity to prepare themselves,” he said.
In many badly affected places, residents were overwhelmed by the speed and ferociousness with which the water came.
In Germany, with an election approaching, the issue of flooding has quickly become politicized, and officials are deflecting blame where they can.
In the Ahr valley, one particularly badly flooded area in 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 so unaccustomed to such intense flooding.
Some might have attempted to collect provisions and move their valuables to safety, while others thought they would be safe on the second floor of their homes but ended up having to be airlifted off the roof.
One of the worst affected towns was Schuld, a picturesque town in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
Schuld Mayor Helmut Lussi said the flood was utterly unpredictable, pointing to the fact that the town had only experienced to two previous events of intense flooding, in 1790 and another in 1910.
“I think that flood protection systems would not have helped me because you cannot calculate this, what happens to the river Ahr with such masses of water,” he told reporters over the weekend.
Da Costa said he can sympathize with the mayor, but that his remarks show a lack of understanding in what good planning and management can do.
“His views on the predictability of floods, both on the long-term scale and the immediate scale of being able to provide immediate warnings, are completely wrong, and may go to show one of the difficulties in communicating risk to people or municipal officials who fundamentally don’t understand environmental risk,” he said.
“People should also bear in mind that while flood warnings can’t stop a flood, they can help people move themselves, and their possessions, to safety,” he added.