A dossier detailing how politics failed the night of the Ahr valley floods was released on the zeit.de website. Here is that news research
An irresponsible district administrator, an overwhelmed crisis team and ministers who simply didn’t notice anything: How politics failed on the night of the flood in the Ahr valley
Silence falls as Jürgen Pföhler enters the flood investigation committee in Rhineland-Palatinate. With an expressionless face, the CDU politician stands in front of the witness chair last Friday evening, letting the photographers’ flashbulbs wash over him. After a long day, in which a dozen witnesses reconstructed the flood night, some meticulously with time, others still visibly affected, the appearance of the man, who actually had the political responsibility for the fate of the people in the district, will last less than five minutes: 64 years old he is, Pföhler states at the request of the committee chairman. And he is a retired district administrator by profession.
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Otherwise Pföhler, the man with the distinctive horn-rimmed glasses, will make use of his right to refuse to provide information. He does not want to incriminate himself because the Koblenz public prosecutor’s office is investigating him for negligent homicide and negligent bodily injury by omission. Nor will he offer an apology, which some of the flood victims present that day would expect.
Many questions remain unanswered, even as deputies on the investigative committee work their way through the details of the night of the flood with the help of witness testimony and cell phone evaluations: Where was the district administrator later in the evening of July 14, 2021? Why did he abandon the 130,000 people in the district of Ahrweiler, a majority of whom once elected him to this office? Pföhler did not show up at the crisis team in the town after 8 p.m., where others were increasingly desperate to set up something like crisis management, to do anything to counter the floods. He didn’t feel responsible because he had delegated all flood matters to the town’s district fire inspector. But did he really think that the man, who held his office on an honorary basis, unlike Pföhler, could manage on his own? Why was the emergency in the district of Ahrweiler not declared until around 11 p.m., when Pföhler’s closest colleague had already warned by text message at 5 p.m. that the water level was ” expected to rise to an unbelievable five meters” and the investigators reconstructed that he regularly informed himself about the situation on the online liveblog of the Südwestrundfunk radio station?
“I’m at the end”
At the same time, the analysis of Pföhler’s cell phone revealed that the district administrator made very frequent phone calls during the crucial hours to a private confidante, who is said in the district to be his mistress, and whose name he had stored in his address book under a pseudonym, according to the analysis by the State Criminal Police Office. Around 8 p.m., when some families, who saw the swelling of their river with their own eyes, were already frantically carrying objects to upper floors, Pföhler was still walking the dog with his wife near the Ahr. In the process, his family’s house was closest to the river. Around 10 p.m., he suddenly stood in the living room of his neighbors, shouting that in Schuld, 30 kilometers away, “the houses were already swimming,” and announced that everyone within a radius of 50 meters from the river would now be evacuated. Did he have corresponding information from official sources? Pföhler phoned his close associate several times during the night – but in the end there was no official evacuation action at all. Only those who were warned by Pföhler were lucky. Others in the neighborhood died in the floods.
The emergency was not triggered until an hour later, around the time a neighbor in one of the district administrator’s second homes saw Pföhler’s red Porsche driving away from the garage – his beloved Sunday car. Pföhler had been more concerned about his car than about his fellow citizens, this suspicion was expressed by a 74-year-old neighbor in the committee, her voice quivering with indignation. In any case, the politician was no longer seen in the increasingly desperate operations center. His confidante, however, still received a desperate text message after midnight: “Catastrophe, dead, people on the roofs, injured, no helicopters, power outages, our house is flooded. I’m devastated.”
Understaffed and completely overwhelmed
The district administrator, who is mainly preoccupied with himself, is a particularly vivid example of the failure of those responsible for the flood. If Pföhler had reacted earlier and warned the district, it might have been possible to save lives, for example, to evacuate a home for the disabled 14 kilometers downstream in Sinzig. Twelve people later died there. But the two committees of inquiry in the state parliaments of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia have also worked out one thing in their months of work: It is complicated. The fact that the warning chain did not work, that one municipality did not know for a long time how flooded the other was, that no sirens went off and the residents were unaware for too long – that was political and official collective failure.
Cornelia Weigand is now a full-time politician, but in her former life she studied biology and wrote a thesis on the interaction of habitat systems. Perhaps, says the current district administrator of Ahrweiler and thus Pföhler’s successor, such a view would help to understand the events of the night of the flood for what they were: a multi-layered scenario. This also applies to the search for those responsible. There is no one main culprit, says Weigand.
At the time of the flood, Weigand, 51, was the non-partisan mayor of Altenahr, a municipality 20 kilometers from Bad Neuenahr. On that night in July, she had tried many things to warn and save the residents of her valley, but in the end could do little because she was not heard at the next higher political level. In the investigative committee, she testified about her predecessor that she had tried in vain for hours to reach him, first from the town hall and when the water had penetrated there, from the Mönchsterrasse located on the slope, where the fire department had taken care of the people and set up a large floodlight mast. Already in the late afternoon, Weigand had asked Pföhler through his department head to sound the disaster alarm. Only at 23.42 o’clock, which resulted from the cell phone evaluations, she gets Pföhler finally personally to speak. But she remembers that at first he only talked about his own problems, about his house, which he had to evacuate because of the water.
And yet Weigand’s verdict on Pföhler is downright mild. “At the moment of our telephone conversation, he was himself a person affected. That does something to you,” she says in an interview with ZEIT ONLINE. However, the same is true for her: Her husband had also been trapped by the flood, and in the meantime she didn’t know how he was doing. And yet she made phone calls, warned, organized, and then had to accept that no more help would get through, that first because of the heavy rain, then because of the darkness, no helicopter would take off. That people down in the town had to hold out on roofs and that not all of them would survive this night with this force of the water masses. In the end, 33 people died in the floods in Altenahr alone.