How much the flood areas in western Germany have lost can be guessed by means of examples: Until recently, seven railway bridges crossed the Ahr in Rhineland-Palatinate, but now they are “no longer there”, as the responsible association states. Until recently, there was a castle in Blessem near Cologne, but now parts of the estate have plunged into a crater that threatens the settlement. Last week, the low rain “Bernd” had been stable over Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia for too long, the levels of the Ahr and the Erft had risen too quickly to previously unknown heights.
First and foremost, this is a humanitarian catastrophe. In the Ahrweiler district alone, more than 110 people died who could not escape to higher floors in time or whose houses were torn away. Helicopters circled over the Ahr valley at the weekend, and rescue workers on the ground searched more and more places completely. Thousands of people initially came to care centers, with friends or volunteers.
But at least the levels have been falling since the weekend – not just the Ahr or the Erft, but also the Rhine, into which both rivers flow. The more the water withdraws, the more visible the damage to houses and private property, to businesses and infrastructure.
The General Association of the German Insurance Industry wants to make a first damage forecast this week. One thing is clear: the storm will cost the industry billions. “It is becoming apparent that this year, with storms, floods, heavy rain and hail, could become one of the most damaging since 2013,” says Managing Director Jörg Asmussen. Heavy rain and hail had already caused insured damage of around 1.7 billion euros in June.
For years, insurers have felt that storms and extreme rainfalls are increasing in Germany. The year 2013 has so far been considered particularly bad: Back then there were floods, hailstorms like Manni or Norbert and storm lows like Andreas or Bernd Caused damage of around six billion euros.
Many of those affected are not insured against flood damage
Hundreds of buildings have been destroyed in the district of Ahrweiler most affected by the current flood disaster, which Chancellor Angela Merkel visited on Sunday. The water carried parked cars with it, swept them through the streets, and pressed them against the walls of houses. The people on the Ahr are used to floods, they know cellars that are full. But on Thursday night the level was at least three meters higher than the previous record level of 2016. “Many people in the district have lost everything,” says District Administrator Jürgen Pföhler. And by no means all households in western Germany have the necessary insurance cover.
For example, residential building or household contents insurance only covers damage caused by floods or landslides if the owner has also taken out natural hazard cover. This is the case for 47 percent of buildings in North Rhine-Westphalia and 37 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Politicians regularly discuss whether elementary coverage should not become compulsory insurance. The insurers are against it, because then they would have to accept all customers – even in high-risk areas. In addition, the providers fear that the state could dictate prices and conditions in the event of mandatory coverage. After the floods in 2013, the industry was able to fend off compulsory insurance, and political projects came to nothing. But whether she will succeed again is questionable. The CDU in particular is no longer as friendly towards insurers as it used to be.
Federal Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has promised state aid to flood victims. “It takes a national show of strength,” says the SPD’s candidate for chancellor Picture on sunday. The cabinet could initially initiate emergency aid on Wednesday. “The last flood required significantly more than 300 million euros for this,” said Scholz. “So much is surely needed again now.” After that, a build-up program is needed to quickly repair houses, streets and bridges. “As we know from the previous catastrophe, it is billions of euros,” says the minister.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, the state’s own development bank has also made loans for renovations cheaper. Anyone who has to repair buildings after the storm can apply for loans at 0.01 percent interest from their house bank. In addition, the federal states as well as districts and communities collect donations for people in need.
It will take months for the power grids to be rebuilt
A look into the Ahr valley also shows how much the public sector itself has been damaged by the floods. In the Ahrweiler district alone, ten secondary schools are flooded, says District Administrator Pföhler. The collapsed road bridge over the Ahr, the broken fire brigade on the bank: Pföhler has to rebuild parts of his district town.
Rail transport is also out of the question in the region for the time being. “The water masses have severely damaged tracks, switches, signaling technology, train stations and signal boxes in many parts of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate,” said Deutsche Bahn. The Eifel route from Cologne to Trier and the Ahr Valley Railway from Remagen to Ahrbrück are expected to remain closed for months, the responsible association announced. On the Ahr alone, 20 kilometers of track were destroyed. Several trains are “unusable for months” due to the flood.
The floods have also damaged parts of the infrastructure that is owned by the private sector. For example, water penetrated from the flooded Inde river into the Inden open-cast lignite mine near Aachen, and power plant units were at a standstill for the time being. The operator RWE expects tens of millions of euros in damage. Electricity suppliers also report that the flood has flooded substations and network stations and destroyed parts of them. At times, 200,000 people in western Germany were without electricity. Where the water has withdrawn, operators now repair the systems or set up emergency systems. It will take months before the infrastructure is restored to the way it was before the flood, announces the utility Eon.
Water also penetrated into cell phone stations and distribution boxes of telecommunications companies and destroyed parts of the network technology. Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone had mobile antenna stations and replacement technology delivered to the Eifel with heavy loads at the weekend in order to at least restore cell phone reception.
Insurance companies still do not have an overview of the damage
Anyone walking through the mud in the red wine town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler these days will of course also see the many damage that has to be lamented outside of large corporations: A washed up tree has demolished the windows of the bed and breakfast hotel on the riverbank, curtains flutter from the breakfast room. Restaurants that had hoped for summer business after the recent Corona shutdown are finding their tables, chairs and flower pots in the mud of the old town, from which the water has now drained.
As a rule, companies also have to take out additional cover so that they are insured against the natural risk of flooding. In addition to property damage, they can also cost them dearly if they have to interrupt operations. “In the industrial customer business, new damage reports are constantly being received for the current storm,” says the insurer HDI. In some cases, there is still no contact with the customers, the insurance broker Ecclesia reports, because communication networks are interrupted or one cannot yet visit those affected.
The reputation of industrial and commercial insurers already suffered during the Corona crisis. A number of providers refused to make payments to restaurants or hotels that had to close for months to avoid infections. Many insurance companies are still arguing about this with their customers in court. Experts warn the industry against proceeding in a similarly rigid manner after the storm – when it comes to what evidence companies have to secure for damage: If insurers insist on every detail, they face a similar damage to their image as during the pandemic.
The Prime Minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, found excellent words in her televised address at the weekend. “We can only cope with this natural disaster together,” said the SPD politician, “just like the corona pandemic.”