German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised emergency financial aid, distributed quickly and without bureaucratic hurdles, on Tuesday during her second trip to flood-hit areas in the country’s west.
“Together we will do everything we can to ensure that the money gets quickly to the people, who often have nothing left besides what they’re wearing,” said Merkel in badly damaged Bad Muenstereifel in the state of North Rhine Westphalia.
Merkel was there on Tuesday with Armin Laschet, the state’s premier and her possible successor as chancellor after September elections.
“The forms and the applications must be very simple, very straightforward. And they should be ready this week, so that the disbursement of the first funds can start quite soon,” said Laschet.
The chancellor said she assumed that the reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure such as roads and railway lines as well as the rebuilding of the city would take longer than a few months. It was very clear “that we need to take a very long breath,” she said.
The federal Cabinet is set to take up the issue at its weekly meeting on Wednesday. It is expected it will approve a 400-million-euro (476.2-million-dollar) assistance programme, with the costs to be split between the national and state governments. The plans also call for the creation of a recovery fund.
Another part of the plan would absolve the states from having to repay the federal government for the rescue work conducted in recent days by federal agencies. EU funds are also to be tapped for the recovery effort.
Merkel had previously visited affected areas in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
Nearly a week after the disaster, 122 bodies have been recovered and 170 people are still missing in Ahrweiler, where the Ahr tributary turned into a torrent after heavy rains, inundating whole communities.
The number of people reported injured stands at 763, according to police.
An estimated 40,000 people are feeling the consequences of the flood. It is a “tremendously large number of people” in a “tremendously large area,” said the head of the state’s crisis management team, Thomas Linnertz.
Infrastructure providing basic utilities such as electricity, water and sewage have been destroyed, and waste is starting to pile up.
In North Rhine Westphalia, the death toll was at 48. About 16 people are still reported as missing across the state.
Merkel was first briefed on the situation in Bad Muenstereifel by Euskirchen district administrator Markus Ramers and Mayor Sabine Preiser-Marian.
The organization of disaster control in Germany has been criticized for reaching people too slowly, despite warnings from meteorologists.
Merkel said the next stage would be looking at what worked and what didn’t in terms of disaster control and early warning systems. “Maybe the good old siren is more useful than people thought,” she said.
Another part of Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting will focus on creating a new system for responding to and organizing in the wake of natural disasters and health emergencies. It would include a push for more coordination in emergency response centres.
Laschet said that the flood made everyone realize “how vulnerable society is when the power is suddenly no longer available” and added that analogue means will become necessary again in the future.
There are also fears that the coronavirus could spread during the clean-up work in the affected areas.
“At the moment, many people are coming together in a very small space to deal with the crisis,” David Freichel, who is part of the the coronavirus communications staff of the state chancellery in Rhineland-Palatinate, told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland media group on Tuesday. “We must now be careful that coping with the disaster does not become a super-spreader event,” he added.
Many rescue workers, however, have already been fully vaccinated.
The heavy rains and floods also killed over 30 people across the border in Belgium.