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After Fatal Floods, Germans Look At How Climate Change And Infrastructure Contributed


To Germany now, where crews are cleaning up after the worst floods the region has seen in nearly six decades. More than 160 people have died. The damage amounts to billions of dollars. Now, Germans are asking what role climate change may be playing and how to keep this from happening again. NPR's Rob Schmitz has been out surveying the destruction. He joins us from the flood region near Bonn.

Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I know you have been out in one of the worst-hit towns. You spent yesterday talking to people there. What are they saying about how this happened?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I spoke to several people yesterday in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, people who had suffered incredible damage to their homes. Dozens of people in this town died in this disaster. And the one thing everyone was talking about was how unnatural all of this seemed. The rain was nothing like anyone had ever seen before. The way that the tiny creek that runs through this town, the Ahr, filled up from below a foot deep to 25-feet-deep in a matter of a few hours as water rushed down into this valley. I spoke to resident Martin Larson about this. And he thought climate change was definitely a part of this, but he also listed other culprits behind the severity of the flooding. Here's what he said.

MARTIN LARSSON: This type of flooding is not normal. This type of rain is not normal, and the consequences are not normal, yeah. The main thing is probably infrastructure, yeah. We've probably been building everywhere here. Everywhere here, you've asphalted. Everything's paved. The river is straight, yeah. It's not bending back-and-forth. It's been manipulated by man throughout the years. It's nice and shallow and it's just cozy. But when it comes high water, it's - pfft (ph).

SCHMITZ: You know, Germany is Europe's most populous country. It's about the size of New Mexico, but it has more than 80 million people in that area. So its population is fairly dense. And there are so many towns like the one I visited yesterday that are built along waterways that are highly engineered. And urban management to prevent these extreme weather events from causing so much damage is something that German officials will likely start analyzing more closely in the aftermath of this tragedy.

KELLY: What were people telling you about how the government has handled this, Rob? What's been the response?

SCHMITZ: On a local level, I think people are pretty satisfied. You know, you had military personnel, firemen and women, police, all there in droves, helping people. And I think that that was really - it was pretty overwhelming. And I think people are really happy about that. On a federal level, with the high-powered politicians, I think Germans are probably thinking about, gosh, you know, this is a big election year. And the Green Party is a candidate that's in the running. And this is a party that has been warning everyone about climate change and extreme weather events for years. So it could very well help their chances.

KELLY: And, Rob, before I let you go, I wonder if you would just paint a picture. Leave us with an image as Americans try to get our heads around what exactly Germany's grappling with.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. The devastation that I saw just in this one town - and, Mary Louise, we're talking about several towns that are just like this one town. And when you think about that and you times it by 10 or even more, you realize that there are so many people here that have lost their homes. They've lost their loved ones. They've lost all of their belongings. But I think for me, the thing that lasts is just the community spirit that I saw in the town that I went to yesterday. People were helping each other out. People had friends and family coming from all over the region. And so I think that's what really stuck with me

KELLY: That is NPR's Rob Schmitz, joining us from the flood zone in western Germany.

Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRENTEMOLLER'S "MISS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.