'We miss home': rebuilding lives one year after Europe's deadly floods

By Andreas Kranz

BAD NEUENAHR, Germany (Reuters) - Standing in what was once his home, Erich Braun-von der Heiden stretches out his arm and points up to an attic floor where waters reached last year as catastrophic floods tore through communities in western Germany.

In the aftermath of the country's worst natural disaster in more than half a century, survivors are gradually rebuilding their lives.

But some struggle to even talk about the events of last July, when flash floods in Europe killed more than 200 people, mostly in Germany and Belgium, and destroyed thousands of homes, roads, railway lines and bridges.

Diggers have cleared away much of the debris caused by the devastation, power and water supplies have been restored, makeshift roads and bridges have been set up and schools are back up and running - even if in temporary shelters.

Yet life for many in Germany's Ahr Valley, the lush winemaking region that became the epicentre of the floods, remains difficult.

Braun-von der Heiden and his wife Christa in March were relocated to a so-called 'Tiny House' - a 30 square metre (323 square feet) wooden bungalow - while their former home is renovated. Two acquaintances died in the deluge.

"We miss home," Chista von der Heiden told Reuters.

"We dodge conversations about the flood problem," said her husband. They talk about their grandchildren and lots of other things, "but the night of the flood and the following days, they're largely blotted out of conversations."

It is a similar story for Helmut Besser, who saw nearby houses get washed away while his own home survived by a matter of a few metres, and he and his wife were evacuated by helicopter. His wife could not bring herself to visit the home while it was being repaired.

Neighbour Martin Spoo, whose farm was flooded, cannot look at the pictures from back then. "Honestly, I can't yet," he told Reuters.


Many locals do not know when they will be able to return home. Applications for public aid are complex, craftsmen are often booked out, building material is scarce and construction permits take time, they say.

Only a fraction of the 30 billion euros ($35.16 billion) of aid Germany agreed to spend on recovery efforts has so far been disbursed. Some who worked in tourism or winemaking are giving up and moving elsewhere.

Rhineland-Palatinate state premier Malu Dreyer has acknowledged some of the "demoralizing" challenges but said much progress had been made.

Regional parliamentary commissions are studying how to improve flood preparedness after criticism that lives were lost because the warning systems in place were lacking.

The floods had deep ramifications in Germany in a key electoral year, dealing a fatal blow to conservative candidate Armin Laschet's bid for the chancellery.

Laschet's popularity plummeted after he was seen laughing on a visit to a flood-stricken town, opening up the way for Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, now chancellor, to clinch the vote.

Now, some hope is returning. The Sermann family has been making wine in Germany's Ahr wine district for nearly 300 years.

After 50 hectares were flooded and partly destroyed, the family has planted new vines. From September, they hopes to start receiving visitors again, though wine grower Elmar Sermann blames local authorities for dithering over rebuilding the area.

"It's all very, very slow and you have to realize in retrospect that the damage is much greater than you imagined at the beginning," he said.

Christa von der Heiden hopes to move back into her home by the end of the year: "We want to celebrate Christmas here again."

(Reporting by Andreas Kranz, Sarah Marsh, Reinhard Becker and Klaus Lauer; writing by Matthias Williams, editing by Deepa Babington)