Deadly floods inundated parts of Europe, but the Netherlands avoided fatalities. Here’s why

CNN  — 

As communities devastated by the catastrophic flooding in parts of western Europe start picking up the pieces, they are wondering how it all went so wrong, so fast. After all, Europe has a world-leading warning system that issued regular alerts for days before floods engulfed entire villages.

But at least 195 people still died in Germany and Belgium, in floods that came quickly and forcefully. The Copernicus Emergency Management Service said it sent more than 25 warnings for specific regions of the Rhine and Maas river basins in the days leading up to the flooding, through its European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), well before heavy rains triggered the flash flooding.

But few of these early warnings appear to have been passed on to residents early – and clearly – enough, catching them completely off guard. Now questions are being raised over whether the chain of communication from the central European level to regions is working.

“There was clearly a serious breakdown in communication, which in some cases has tragically cost people’s lives,” said Jeff Da Costa, a PhD researcher in hydrometeorology at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.

Da Costa focuses on flood warning systems in his research, and his own parents’ home in Luxembourg happened to be hit over the weekend. He said the experiences of the past week show there is often a gap between the weather warnings scientists issue and the actions actually taken by people in charge on the ground.

Some of the warnings – including in Luxembourg – were only issued after the flood had hit, he said.

“People, including my own family, were left to their own devices without any indication on what to do, and giving them no opportunity to prepare themselves,” he said.

In many badly affected places, residents were overwhelmed by the speed and ferociousness with which the water came.

In Germany, with an election approaching, the issue of flooding has quickly become politicized, and officials are deflecting blame where they can.

In the Ahr valley, one particularly badly flooded area in western Germany, senior officials told CNN that warnings were issued ahead of the disaster, but said many residents didn’t take them seriously enough, because they were so unaccustomed to such intense flooding.

Some might have attempted to collect provisions and move their valuables to safety, while others thought they would be safe on the second floor of their homes but ended up having to be airlifted off the roof.

One of the worst affected towns was Schuld, a picturesque town in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Schuld Mayor Helmut Lussi said the flood was utterly unpredictable, pointing to the fact that the town had only experienced to two previous events of intense flooding, in 1790 and another in 1910.

“I think that flood protection systems would not have helped me because you cannot calculate this, what happens to the river Ahr with such masses of water,” he told reporters over the weekend.

Da Costa said he can sympathize with the mayor, but that his remarks show a lack of understanding in what good planning and management can do.

“His views on the predictability of floods, both on the long-term scale and the immediate scale of being able to provide immediate warnings, are completely wrong, and may go to show one of the difficulties in communicating risk to people or municipal officials who fundamentally don’t understand environmental risk,” he said.

“People should also bear in mind that while flood warnings can’t stop a flood, they can help people move themselves, and their possessions, to safety,” he added.

Da Costa said that as extreme weather events become more common because of climate change, towns like Schuld must step up their planning.

“If the mayor of Schuld and his town had a plan, clearly communicated to every household and businesses and institution, so that everyone knew what to do in the event of a range of different flooding scenarios, then at least they would be as well prepared as they could be,” he said, adding that if he and other regional leaders had done so, less people may have died.

“In times of crisis, everyone needs to know what they are doing. This is why we rehearse fire evacuations from buildings, even when we don’t expect there to be a fire,” he said.

CNN has contacted Lussi’s office but did not immediately receive a response.

In Belgium, too, communication and organization appear to have been problems. The mayor of Chaudfontaine, a town in the province of Liège, said he received an “orange alert” warning him of rising waters but argued it clearly should have been red earlier.

“We could see how the available material wasn’t adapted to the situations that we saw. I’m thinking notably about helicopters that weren’t able to work in the area,” Mayor Daniel Bacquelaine told Belgian broadcaster RTBF. “The boat rescues were absolutely essential and we had to call upon the private sector for boats with sufficient motor power and people to pilot them.”

Dutch lessons

In the Netherlands, just across its borders with Germany’s and Belgium’s flood-devastated areas, the picture is entirely different. The Netherlands too experienced extreme rainfall – albeit not quite as heavy as those in Germany and Belgium – and it hasn’t escaped unscathed. But its towns are not entirely submerged and not a single person has died. Officials were better prepared and were able to communicate with people quickly, said Professor Jeroen Aerts, head of the Water and Climate Risk department at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

“We better saw the wave coming, and where it was going,” Aerts told CNN.

The Netherlands has a long history of water management and their success in the face of this disaster may offer the world a blueprint on how to handle floods, especially as climate change is expected to make extreme rain events more common.

People build flood defenses using sandbags following heavy rains and floods in the Limburg province of the Netherlands.

The country has been battling the sea and swollen rivers for nearly a millennium. Three large European rivers – the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt – have their deltas in the Netherlands, and with much of its land below the sea level, the government says 60% of the country is at flood risk. Much of the country is essentially sinking.

Its water management infrastructure is among the best in the world – involving giant walls with moveable arms the size of two football fields, coastal dunes that are reinforced with some 12 million cubic meters of sand per year, and simple things, like dikes and giving rivers more room to swell by lowering their beds – or floors – and expanding their banks.

Its strength lies largely in its organization. The country’s infrastructure is managed by a branch of government devoted solely to water, the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management, which looks after some 1,500 kilometers of man-made defenses.

The country’s water problems are managed by a network of locally elected bodies whose sole function is to care for all things water, from flood to waste water, Aerts said. The first of these local “water boards” was established in the city of Leiden in 1255 – that’s how along ago the country realized it needed robust water management.

“This is a unique situation that we have,” Aerts said. “Apart from the national government, the provinces, and cities, you have a fourth layer, the water boards, which are entirely focused on water management.”

The eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier is part of the flood defense system in the Netherlands.

The boards have the ability to levy taxes independently, so they are not subject to the ups and downs of the national coffers.

“Water is involved in the tourism sector, it is involved in industry, in the building sector,” Aerts said. “And what you see is that in different countries is that the policies from governments are really sectoral.”

In the Netherlands, he called water boards the “glue” that hold everything together, and can make sure, for example, that a proposal to build on a flood plain has all the relevant parties in communication.

The water management agency’s website sums ups simply and clearly what it’s trying to do. “It’s raining more, the sea is rising, and rivers need to carry ever more water,” it reads. “Protecting against high water is and remains existential.”

This story has been updated to reflect a revised death toll from Belgian authorities.

CNN’s Atika Shubert, Vasco Cotovio and Joseph Ataman contributed reporting.