NPR’s Ailsa Chang speaks with German freelance journalist Holger Klein about the devastating floods in Erftstadt, Germany, a city southwest of Cologne.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Houses reduced to wooden sticks, a destroyed castle, torrents of water that drag cars through the streets like toy sailboats – these are just some of the images of destruction caused by some of the heaviest rains Western Europe has seen in a century. . The most affected country is Germany, where the death toll is increasing and hundreds are still missing. Holger Klein is a freelance journalist who lives in Berlin, but is actually on vacation visiting his parents about 40 miles southwest of Cologne, where there have been devastating floods. Welcome.
HOLGER KLEIN: Hi.
CHANG: Hello. Can you tell us, Holger, how safe is where you are right now?
KLEIN: Where I am, it’s perfectly safe because my parents live on a plateau just above the floods, so the children play in the gardens. And in the distance, you can hear helicopters flying and sirens sounding. This is kind of a weird situation that I’m in because I don’t miss a thing. I have food. I have electricity. The water runs. A few kilometers away, people are suffering and their houses have been razed when a sandbox filled with water and undermined half the town. And so all the houses collapsed. The only thing we don’t have is internet access.
CHANG: It’s good to know you’re safe. And I understand you just got back from a motorcycle trip around town. Can you tell us what you saw?
KLEIN: I tried to take a motorcycle trip, but I was fired by the firefighters who belong to the emergency services there. The water seems to be receding. But the town of Blessem, which is about 2 miles from my parents’ house, looks like a war zone. The water is retreating, but there is debris all over the city. And it is a very small town, indeed. There are only about 2,000 people living there. The local 14th century castle has been razed, dead animals lying around.
SMALL: Cars have been floating.
CHANG: Were there warnings about the possibility of floods and evacuations before all this happened?
KLEIN: No, which is basically the problem, because what we are seeing here looks exactly like the circumstances that the experts have been warning us about. They said prepare for the floods. And we are used to flooding here in this region. But mostly, it’s the winter floods when the ice is melting. And this Erftstadt is named after a very small river, which is usually about 6 feet wide. And sometimes it overflows and some cells fill with water. But we have never seen this before.
CHANG: You’ve never seen such a massive flood, is it … on this scale?
KLEIN: No, on this scale, never before. And all the people I spoke to said we’ve never seen this before, not in this region or at this time of year.
CHANG: Now, Germany is known for its incredibly well-built infrastructure.
CHANG: So are you surprised? You’re laughing. Is that a mistake?
KLEIN: No, but it’s the … it’s the German myth abroad. Yes, our infrastructure is very, very good. But if your flood management is poor, the world’s best infrastructure won’t save you.
CHANG: Right. Well, Chancellor Angela Merkel visited President Biden in Washington yesterday and climate change was high on the agenda. Merkel has expressed her condolences. He said that his heart goes out to the people who are suffering right now. And, Holger, I know you don’t have internet right now, so maybe you haven’t been following these official statements, but what about the local official response? What kinds of actions are you seeing near your parents’ town right now?
KLEIN: You can see, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands of people from emergency response teams, from the Red Cross, even our army has come to the region and is trying to help. There are boats everywhere. There are helicopters everywhere. And there are hundreds, maybe thousands of helping hands of emergency response teams congregating here.
CHANG: Freelance journalist Holger Klein speaks to us from the Erftstadt region of Germany. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us. And please stay safe.
KLEIN: You’re welcome.
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