Home Brussels Europe’s floods: How a modern warning system was overwhelmed

Europe’s floods: How a modern warning system was overwhelmed

by editor

The first warnings of a major flood came four days before the rain.

The notifications were increasingly urgent, landing in the inboxes of government officials across Germany and Belgium. They described alarming scenarios: once-in-a-generation floods, extreme danger.

The alerts came from scientists working on the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) who had seen satellite forecasts showing the Rhine and Meuse river basins would be hit by a massive dump of rain for two days starting Tuesday, July 13.

“Me and my colleagues were looking at it going, ‘Oh, this looks very bad,’” said Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at Reading University who helped set up EFAS. 

That was also the sentiment EFAS was signaling to officials. Between Saturday, July 10, and Wednesday, July 14, EFAS sent more than 25 warnings to public authorities about the two river basins. The forecast size of the floods for the Rhine “increased significantly” over those five days, EFAS later said.

But by the end of the week, more than 200 people were dead across a huge area of eastern Belgium and western Germany, killed as the heavy downpour turned roads into rivers and swelled into people’s homes.

A week after that, a search for hundreds of people still missing turned into a search for bodies.  

Now, survivors and flood experts are demanding to know what happened during the critical days between the EFAS warnings and the floods arriving. They want to know why people were not evacuated, despite the clear, early alerts. And, in the case of the Meuse river basin in Belgium, they’re questioning whether local authorities made a bad situation worse through their management of an upstream dam. 

Answering those questions will offer lessons about living with Europe’s new climate reality, where slow-moving storms and mega-floods are predicted to return ever more frequently.

And while local investigations might take months to bring decisive answers, POLITICO’s interviews with experts, officials and witnesses on both sides of the border expose how unprepared two European countries were to respond to rainfall in such quantity, across such a large area.

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There was a failure in the information chain that is supposed to translate warnings from flood forecasters into instructions for citizens in danger. Exactly where that chain fractured is unclear and likely to vary across the affected regions. But broadly, the breakdown occurred after alerts were passed to regional and local authorities. There are suggestions that complacency, poor decision making and underestimation of risk might have compounded an already drastic situation.

“It’s not the one person or administration which is responsible,” said Pierre Ozer, a flood expert at the university in Liège, one of Belgium’s most impacted cities. “It’s just an addition of things that went wrong. And at the end, it becomes something that you cannot handle anymore.”

The EFAS activates

In the beginning, the system seems to have worked exactly as it’s supposed to.

EFAS warnings are not made public until 30 days after they are issued. European national governments created the embargo in order to avoid “chaos,” according to a person familiar with the decision. It’s up to national and local authorities to interpret and pass on the warnings in a precise way that avoids widespread panic and saves lives.

After the EFAS notifications were received over the weekend, Germany’s Federal Transport Ministry said, the German weather service passed warnings along the chain at 6 a.m. on Monday, July 12. 

Germany’s Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance said it issued 143 separate severe warning messages to the media and through its NINA warning app from the early hours of Tuesday morning onward.

Some 16 of those came at the highest level: one, which indicates extreme danger.

These warnings were not only fired out via apps but also through regional media outlets, national rail operator Deutsche Bahn, digital information boards at places like bus stops and even a national paging service.

POLITICO obtained one of the alerts EFAS issued to the Belgian state services on that Monday. It said the River Ourthe — a tributary that joins the Meuse at Liège in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region — was at risk of a major flood from midday Tuesday to midnight Thursday. It estimated a 49 percent chance the flood would be the size of a once-in-20-years event.

At the same time, Belgian and German weather forecasters were independently predicting huge rainfalls, up to 200 millimeters in some places.

Despite that, the provincial government of Liège, which is responsible for coordinating disaster response, does not appear to have mounted a wide public information campaign to warn people in advance of the floods.

Sébastien Brunet, a disaster management expert at Liège University who was later drafted to help coordinate the rescue effort, said people from the emergency services told him the provincial government had treated the EFAS warnings as just “another alarm, without any kind of specific level of concern.” 

A spokesperson for Liège Province said they would not answer questions as it was still a “time for crisis management.” Other Belgian authorities did not respond to emails.

Belgium is warned

The river valleys upstream from Liège are dotted with towns and dams that were built to supply drinking water and control flooding. 

One of them, Lake Eupen, holds about 25 million cubic meters of water. But after two summers of drought, authorities were wary of dumping lake water to relieve pressure on the dam, known as the Barrage de la Vesdre, Wallonian dams director Fabian Docquier told local newspaper La Meuse.

On Monday, warnings started to filter through to Docquier that heavy rains were coming. By Tuesday, the situation “became clear,” he said. But the Wallonian authority believed there was enough space in the dam to contain the rain that was forecast.

Over the next 48 hours, the dam accumulated another 13.4 million cubic meters, more than half Lake Eupen’s normal capacity, Wallonian Vice President and Climate Minister Philippe Henry told La Meuse. By Wednesday afternoon the dam became so full, officials began to worry it would collapse.

“If the dam suddenly gave way, the catastrophe would have been even greater,” said Docquier.

On Wednesday, the authorities made a drastic decision. An order was given — it’s not clear by whom — to slowly release water into the Vesdre River. First at five cubic meters per second, then 10, then 15. By 11 p.m., the flow hit 45 cubic meters per second, more than enough to flood the towns below. 

Around 3 p.m. that afternoon, an order went out from Liège Governor Hervé Jamar’s office to remove all people living by the rivers in the towns of Eupen, Limburg and Baelen, according to a person who has seen the email issued to local authorities. 

But the water release couldn’t keep pace with the rain.

After 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Henry said, everything that went into the brimming dam was dumped into the Vesdre River. Hours later, around 3 a.m., the flow into the river peaked at 150 cubic meters per second — enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in 16 seconds.

POLITICO was given a document that could not be authenticated but appeared to be a security report from the Corman cheese factory in the tiny riverside hamlet of Baelen. At 2:30 a.m on Thursday, a security guard heard a noise coming from the river. “He just had time to start his car and quickly park” on higher ground, the text reads. 

“A wave arrived from La Vesdre,” the report said. Then at 3:30 a.m.: “A second wave hits. It’s impossible to approach the factory from the surrounding roads in the valley of La Vesdre. It hasn’t stopped raining.”

By the time the waves hit the larger town of Verviers, they were a “tsunami,” said Malik Ben Achour, Verviers’ member of Belgium’s federal parliament. His aunt watched both waves — the second around a meter high — sweep through the town toward her house, he said. 

Those accounts coincide with the timeline Henry gave for when the major release from the dam took place. Almost one in five residents in Verviers and downriver Pepinster — around 12,000 people — have had their homes so badly damaged they cannot return, according to the Belgian government. 

“Even World War II hasn’t created such a mess in the city,” Ben Achour said, adding that survivors were now wondering if the wave was avoidable. 

“In the valley of the Vesdre, I’m not sure it was … a natural disaster,” he said.

Local officials, including Wallonian Vice President Henry, have fought back against the suggestion there were errors in the management of the dam. The forecasts undercooked the amount of rain they expected and authorities risked flooding the towns unnecessarily if they emptied too much water from the dam, Henry said. 

“It was not the Vesdre dam that flooded the valley, but the exceptional precipitation,” Docquier told La Meuse.

“They made a huge mistake,” Damien Ernst, an engineering professor at the University of Liège, told POLITICO. In a Facebook post, he added that the decision not to preemptively empty the dam “led to deaths and major destruction of property.” Two other dams in the region, operated by the energy company Engie, were reportedly emptied earlier in the week.

But even if authorities made a judgment call on the dam, it’s not clear why only a handful of communities on the Vesdre were evacuated before the release. Ben Achour said he had no knowledge of an evacuation order for Verviers or Pepinster, which became two of the most affected areas. 

Ben Achour said local police confirmed to him that 14 people had died in those two towns, meaning around a third of the people killed or missing in Belgium were in locations left unevacuated below the Barrage de la Vesdre. 

The Vesdre flows into the Ourthe, which joins the Meuse in Liège. Several residents of the riverside district of Angleur, where another two people were reported killed, said they received no warning in advance of the floodwaters arriving. On Thursday, emergency service calls in Liège peaked at 900 per hour.

The government did send out around 2 million texts as the water piled up, but it was too late for most. At 11:05 a.m. on Thursday, Guénaël Devillet, another University of Liège academic, received a text in French from the national crisis center, an hour’s drive away in Brussels. 

It read: “Many inaccessible or dangerous roads — Avoid traveling.”

That wouldn’t be a problem. In the driveway, Devillet’s car was already underwater.

Germany is warned

Meanwhile, 80 kilometers across the border in the spa town of Bad Münstereifel, warnings from Germany’s disaster relief agency were similarly failing to get through.

There were 61 hours between Monday morning, when Germany’s Transport Ministry says the alert went out to regional authorities, and the moment Erwin Schmitz’s neighbors told him his car was also going under.

Despite the heavy barrage of electronic messaging sent out throughout the first part of the week in Germany, locals failed to either receive warnings or heed them. Schmitz said it was the former. Local authorities, he said, “should have driven through the village and warned, because there was no more electricity for the radio or television.”

The deluge that struck the town was due to a combination of factors.

“There were two things that came together: first we had a longer-range rain event but this was then … enhanced by thunderstorms,” said Marcus Beyer, a forecaster at the German Weather Service in Offenbach.

Similar rainfall had hit the Brandenburg region around Berlin a few weeks earlier, but its flat topography and sandy earth meant the damage was limited, he said.

“The amount of precipitation was almost the same but the consequences were not,” said Beyer.

While Beyer’s team first became aware heavy rainfall was likely to hit Germany again a week before the storm ultimately ravaged parts of the country — and a few days before EFAS’s warnings came through — it wasn’t possible for them to determine the exact location.

“You could not say for [sure] which local village how much rain would fall, only over a larger area,” he said.

In the Iversheim district of Bad Münstereifel, a local couple said the sirens at the church only began to sound on Wednesday evening, well after the deluge had begun. 

“Somebody was sleeping, or maybe just didn’t take the situation seriously,” said one woman, who declined to give her name.

“Yet here no one knew,” her husband added, holding back tears. “Hundreds were in fear of their lives,” sitting on roofs, waiting to be rescued.

“It was grossly negligent,” said Schmitz. “It’s going to have to be investigated.”

While the early warnings from EFAS proved accurate, the scale of the floods clearly overwhelmed the local authorities that were supposed to act on them.

“We have done so many things, so it was quite frustrating to see that so many people died,” said Beyer, the German weather forecaster. 

Turning the tide

Brunet, the Belgian expert in crisis management, said the response was massively complicated by the huge area impacted. 

Evacuating a few streets can be a difficult operation. For big populations, in dangerous weather conditions, it is easy to create chaos and increase the risk to life, he said. 

False alarms can also pave the way for public hesitancy when a really big flood does arrive. But he also said that, in the case of Liège, the authorities had simply failed to grasp how serious the situation was. “They didn’t make the analysis,” he said.

“I’m just very disappointed,” said Cloke, the hydrologist who helped establish EFAS. “Having so much investment of time and science into being able to predict these things better, we’re still seeing people die.”

Unpreparedness is expected when faced with uncommon events. 

While floods of this scale might once have been extremely rare events in Europe, scientists say they will return more frequently as the planet heats up due to burning fossil fuels. Just a week after the storm began in Europe, at least 33 people were killed when the Chinese city of Zhengzhou received an unfathomable 624 millimeters of rain in a single day — a third of which fell in an hour.

In the aftermath of the floods, politicians across parties and across countries stressed the floods were a climate alarm bell. But, like their early flood alerts, not all of them seemed to grasp the significance of the warning.

Some did. Wallonian Vice President Henry said all forecasts needed to be revised “upwards” to adapt to this new reality. “What is totally outside the norm can happen today,” he said. Visiting the flood-hit region in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the country should focus more on “protection” from climate change. 

“We have to be prepared for those challenges,” Annelies Verlinden, Belgium’s interior minister, said at a recent press conference. 

Yet she cautioned: “There is no script for a water bomb like the one we faced. … We really have to let go of that idea. It’s an illusion that we can prepare or plan for everything.”

Verlinden’s German counterpart, Horst Seehofer, on Monday dismissed the idea that Germany’s disaster management could be in need of reform, suggesting those who said so were using the tragedy to influence the current federal election campaign. “That’s almost sleazy,” he said.

One result is that German authorities are mulling expanding the disaster notification system to cover SMS alerts, according to media outlet RND. Currently, though, the NINA Warn App used to notify people of impending extreme weather only has 10 million users. The government is also under pressure to work on expanding its network of warning sirens.

Meanwhile, the local public broadcaster in western Germany, WDR, said in a statement on Friday that it had “warned of danger to life in certain areas” but conceded it should have dedicated more airtime to the crisis on Wednesday evening.

The broadcaster also said there had at times been “contradictory” information issued by authorities.

In the German city of Hagen, within WDR’s broadcast area, Mayor Erik Schulz said he doubted that new physical infrastructure could be built to cope better with floods in the future. Hagen was at the bottom of a basin, he said, and changing the cityscape to make future floods less harmful was only a “cute vision.”

“We are the way we are,” said the mayor.

Hanne Cokelaere, Merlin Sugue and Antonia Zimmerman contributed reporting.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Energy and Climate. From climate change, emissions targets, alternative fuels and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the Energy and Climate policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial. 

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