The German federal government has announced a €200m aid package to support areas devastated by last week’s floods which left at least 170 people dead just months ahead of national elections.
The initial funds will be added to some €250m put forward by regional governments, and will focus on rebuilding infrastructure swept away in Germany’s worst floods in 50 years as well as supporting businesses destroyed by the deluge.
“We will do what is necessary,” Olaf Scholz, the country’s finance minister, said on Wednesday as he estimated that reconstruction costs would amount to billions of euros. He said rebuilding after Germany’s last major floods in 2002 had cost in the region of €6bn.
“That’s what people pay taxes for,” said federal interior minister Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union, “that they are helped in exceptional situations.”
The floods are expected to be one of the most costly natural disasters in Germany in the last hundred years, both in terms of human life and reconstruction.
At least 155 people are still missing in the hard-hit Ahrweiler district of the state of Rhineland-Palatine alone and on Wednesday Sabine Lacker, deputy head of the Federal Agency for Technical Relief, said the chance of finding any of those alive was low.
“It is unfortunately very likely that victims can only be recovered, not rescued,” she told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.
GDV, a trade body representing German insurers, said it expected insured losses of up to €5bn — only a portion of the costs, given that it estimates only 46 per cent of German homeowners are insured against flooding.
Germany has been shaken by how badly it seems to have coped with the floods that meteorological systems warned of days in advance, echoing frustrations with the government’s fumbling response to the coronavirus pandemic. Initial debates over whether the flooding signalled the arrival of climate change-induced catastrophes hitting the developed world have given way to heated questions as to whether federal and regional authorities could have acted faster or done more to warn residents of the danger.
The opposition Free Democrats on Monday accused Seehofer’s ministry of effectively allowing “system failure.”
That perception is already starting to have an impact on polls measuring public sentiment before Germany’s September 2021 Bundestag election, which will name the successor to Angela Merkel after 16 years in power.
Her Christian Democratic Union’s candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet, faced public outrage after he was caught on camera joking and laughing this week while the country’s president gave a sombre speech to flood victims. Laschet, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the states most badly affected, apologised. But in the wake of the incident his party sunk two points in an opinion poll to 28 per cent.
Yet the candidates from his main rival parties — Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, and Scholz of the Social Democrats — have not seemed to benefit.
Baerbock still holds the lowest rating in public polls for crisis management, despite her party’s longstanding message about climate change.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Seehofer and health minister Jens Spahn announced a new strategy for civil protection, which would include a joint federal and state crisis centre for pandemics and disasters.
Warning systems using sirens — which had been neglected or dismantled in recent decades — will be bolstered, alongside expanded cell broadcasts. Seehofer also urged more engagement from the media and residents.
“We need to raise awareness for everyone in the population on how to deal with disaster scenarios,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ian Smith in London