Bund-Chancellor Angela Merkel said it just four days after the flood in July. After her visit in Schuld an der Ahr, she said “that we need staying power”. At that time, she promised to come back to the Ahr Valley, “so that we can make this perseverance clear, because everything will not be all right here in the short term.” Merkel spoke of a “surreal, ghostly situation”. The German language hardly knows words for such devastation. The Chancellor kept her promise on Friday. This time she went to Altenburg in the Altenahr community.
On the eve of the Chancellor’s visit, it is still quiet in Altenburg. Local Mayor Rüdiger Fuhrmann is on the phone in front of the deserted retirement home, which is located directly on the Ahr. He will show the Chancellor through the town the next day. Only a few journalists will be there. There is a lot to regulate. His job is actually an honorary position, but now he’s doing it full-time for the time being. “We have been out of the clean up phase for ten days,” he says. That was mostly done with private helpers. Now is the phase in which “there is a need to structure in order to then go into the reconstruction in a targeted manner”.
“Autumn is coming, winter is coming”
Carter points to a windowless house. There is no longer any plaster on the walls. The paved path in front of the house is neatly swept. That’s a good example, he says. The people inside would have done what they could do themselves. Now it has to be clarified where and how it is allowed to build. Most of the buildings here have been destroyed. There is a lot to be set up in Altenburg. The private houses, the retirement home, the elementary school and the secondary school plus with a gym, in which the table tennis club trains. At some point the streets will also have to be put in order. Fuhrmann says: “The people who lived here want that village feeling back.”
He stops a few streets away. “Houses used to stand here.” Five in front of the main street and three in the back of the village street. More than a dozen houses have already been demolished. Fuhrmann continues towards the Ahr. “This is the Altenburg chapel.” The gem in the Ahrbogen on the other side of the river is still standing. There used to be a playground there too. Nothing more can be seen of that. Just mud. Fuhrmann points to the left: “That was the bridge.”
When Merkel gave a press conference in a gym in Grafschaft-Ringen on Friday after her tour of Altenburg, Fuhrmann was among those who stood behind her. He is wearing jeans and a checked shirt. She has come to the Ahr Valley for the second time, says Merkel. Their message is “that we do not forget the flood”. She speaks of the impressive pictures from Altenburg, where there is “such extensive destruction”. Merkel goes into the talks with the association’s mayor Cornelia Weigand and with Fuhrmann. They would have “made it clear again which distance has already been covered,” she says. But there is still a lot to be done. “Autumn is coming, winter is coming, the question of living is a huge one,” says Merkel.
She speaks of the EUR 30 billion flood relief fund, which is to be decided in the Bundestag and Bundesrat next week. She repeats: “How will you not be forgotten?” The Prime Minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer (SPD), is also there. She thanks the Chancellor for the “very good cooperation with the Federal Government”. Despite all the destruction, it is very reassuring to see “what has been done here in seven weeks”. It’s like starting everything all over again, says Dreyer. She talks about the challenge of a winter without heating. In the next week there will be a first future conference and at the end of September a second one, at which information will be given about the construction fund and flood protection areas. A central question is: “Where can you build safely?”
How can you still live safely on the rivers?
The mayor of Altenahr, Cornelia Weigand, says she is “glad to see the Federal Chancellor and the Prime Minister here”. More than 40,000 people were affected by the floods on the Ahr. It is good to see “that we are not alone”. Weigand thanks the helpers, as Merkel and Dreyer did before: “This solidarity gives hope.” And she reminds us that what happened in the Ahr valley was a “sign of climate change”. Then she makes a suggestion that Merkel will come back to later. Weigand focuses on the European dimension of the flood disaster. The question is how to live safely on the rivers in the future. Merkel wants to bring the idea of combining the best ideas and experts from Europe “to Europe again”, as she later says.
There is not so much agreement on all points. In August, the affected Ahr Valley municipalities called for a special commissioner at federal level in an open letter. Nothing came of it. Instead, State Secretary Nicole Steingaß (SPD) has a representative for reconstruction at the state level. Merkel says: “If a federal problem is addressed, we will act immediately.”