‘We miss home’: rebuilding lives a year after Europe’s deadly floods

BAD NEUENAHR, Germany, July 12 (Reuters) – Standing in what was once his home, Erich Braun-von der Heiden stretches out his arm and points to an attic where waters reached last year as catastrophic floods ravaged communities in western Germany. .

In the aftermath of the country’s worst natural disaster in more than half a century, survivors are gradually rebuilding their lives.

But some struggle to talk about the events of last July, when flash floods in Europe killed more than 200 people, mostly in Germany and Belgium, and destroyed thousands of homes, roads, railways and bridges.

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Diggers have removed much of the debris caused by the devastation, electricity and water supplies have been restored, makeshift roads and bridges have been put in place and schools are functioning again – even though they are in temporary shelters.

Yet life for many in Germany’s Ahr Valley, the lush wine region that has become the epicenter of the floods, remains difficult.

Braun-von der Heiden and his wife Christa in March were moved to a so-called “little house” – a 30 square meter (323 square foot) wooden bungalow – while their old home is renovated. Two acquaintances died in the flood.

“We miss home,” Chista von der Heiden told Reuters.

“We dodge conversations about the flooding issue,” her husband said. They talk about their grandchildren and lots of other things, “but the night of the flood and the following days, they are largely erased from conversation”.

It’s a similar story for Helmut Besser, who saw nearby houses swept away while his own house survived a few meters, and he and his wife were evacuated by helicopter. His wife could not bring herself to visit the house while it was being repaired.

Neighbor Martin Spoo, whose farm was flooded, cannot look at the photos from the time. “Honestly, I can’t yet,” he told Reuters.

HOUSE FOR CHRISTMAS

Many residents do not know when they will be able to return home. Requests for public aid are complex, craftsmen are often reserved, building materials are scarce and building permits take time, they say.

Only a fraction of the 30 billion euros ($35.16 billion) in aid that Germany has agreed to spend on recovery efforts has so far been disbursed. Some who worked in tourism or viticulture give up and go elsewhere.

Rhineland-Palatinate Prime Minister Malu Dreyer acknowledged some of the “demoralizing” challenges, but said much progress had been made.

Regional parliamentary committees are considering how to improve flood preparedness after criticism that lives have been lost because warning systems in place failed.

The floods had deep ramifications in Germany in a key election year, dealing a fatal blow to conservative candidate Armin Laschet’s candidacy for chancellorship.

Laschet’s popularity plummeted after he was seen laughing during a visit to a flooded city, paving the way for Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, now chancellor, to win the vote.

Now some hope is returning. The Sermann family has been producing wine in Germany’s Ahr wine region for almost 300 years.

After 50 hectares flooded and partly destroyed, the family planted new vines. From September, they hope to start receiving visitors again, although winemaker Elmar Sermann criticizes local authorities for being reluctant to rebuild the area.

“It’s all very, very slow and you have to realize in retrospect that the damage is much greater than you initially imagined,” he said.

Christa von der Heiden hopes to return to her home by the end of the year: “We want to celebrate Christmas here again.”

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Reporting by Andreas Kranz, Sarah Marsh, Reinhard Becker and Klaus Lauer; written by Matthias Williams, editing by Deepa Babington

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Julio V. Miller