German prosecutors launch deadly flood investigation, World News
German prosecutors said on Friday they had opened an investigation into the district chief of the flood-affected Ahrweiler region for negligence, with late warnings leading to the deaths of dozens of residents.
Some 189 people lost their lives in the severe flooding that hit western Germany in mid-July, raising questions as to whether enough was done to warn residents.
Following an initial examination of the case, Koblenz prosecutors said they had “confirmed the initial suspicions of negligent homicide and negligent bodily harm … and opened investigations”.
Read also | Debris builds up after historic flooding in Germany
The head of the Ahrweiler district, Juergen Pfoehler, is at the center of the investigation because he had “sole decision-making power” and was supposed to be in charge of the operation in accordance with the regulations in force.
Another member of the crisis group, who had for at least part of the time taken command of the emergency response, was also under investigation, prosecutors said, without naming the suspect.
After reconstructing events, investigators found that forecasts of the impending flooding should have caused authorities to sound the warning and evacuate residents living near the swollen Ahr River before 8:30 p.m. (6.30 p.m. GMT) on July 14.
“This – according to initial suspicions – was clearly not carried out, or was not carried out with the requisite clarity or was carried out only late, so it could be negligence” , prosecutors said.
Read also | Global Flood-Exposed People Rise by 25%, Study Finds
It took a little after 11 p.m. for evacuation orders and warnings via smartphone apps to reach residents, according to preliminary findings.
“The main culprit is nature,” Koblenz Attorney General Harald Kruse told a press conference.
“We must not forget that. But even in a case like this, it is possible that criminally relevant human behavior may have contributed to the deaths and injuries of these people.”
Kruse highlighted the 12 lives lost at a disabled care facility when residents on the ground floor drowned in flood water.
“At least for these people, we believe that an earlier and clearer warning of the danger or an earlier and clearer evacuation order could have saved their lives.”
Kruse said investigators raided the district administration office and seized cell phones as part of their efforts to piece together the warnings received when and what action was taken.
Kruse said Pfoehler told prosecutors he delegated management of the crisis to an experienced deputy that night – the other unnamed person under investigation.
Pfoehler himself, who belongs to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, was kept informed by telephone of the unfolding of the floods.
The district of Ahrweiler is located in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate where at least 142 people died in the floods.
Sixteen people remain missing after torrents of water ravaged towns and villages, destroying bridges, roads, railways and homes in the region’s worst flooding in living memory.
Another 47 people died in the neighboring state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
German government officials pledged to learn lessons from the tragedy and improve the country’s disaster warning systems, including through SMS alerts and wider use of sirens.