The source of the small Ahr River is hidden in the cellar of an 18th-century stone building in the town of Blankenheim, in the far west of Germany. From there, it quietly flows through its stone bed past the half-timbered houses of this medieval town in the Eifel region. Six months ago, this river that is barely more than a creek, was transformed into a raging torrent that tore apart the lives of tens of thousands of people living on its banks.
The Ahr River flows from a tiny spring in the cellar of this 18th-century house It is early in the morning, and temperatures are a chilly -9C (15.8F). In the inn across the street from the source of the Ahr, no one seems to be awake yet; Christmas lights are twinkling in the windows. In the bakery around the corner, the first customers are asking for whole-grain rolls. The saleswoman knocks on her counter three times for luck as she says: “The flood didn’t hit us so bad here, thank goodness,” she says. “But if you’re driving down the Ahr, what you see will make you weep. The Ahr Valley is a sad sight.”
Traces of trauma
The Ahr stretches for about 85 kilometers (53 miles), from the hilly Eifel region to the River Rhine. At first, it drifts gently downhill through wide meadows covered in winter frost. Thirty-five kilometers later, the valley narrows and the small stream turns into a river that loops around the picturesque village of Schuld, with its 700 inhabitants. On the night of July 15, the Ahr suddenly ceased to be a river; days of rain turned it into a deluge. In Schuld, it swept away entire houses. Hans-Peter Diel’s house remained standing, but the water engulfed the ground floor. He and his family had taken refuge on the upper floor. Now, Diel stands in front of his house and points to a brown stripe on the outer wall, showing the level of the waters that made his house inhabitable. For the past six months, the Diels have been living with relatives, coming back to clean up and rebuild whenever they have found the time. They have carried mud and debris out of the house, knocked the plaster off the walls, torn out the floorboards. They are among an estimated 42,000 people in the Ahr valley who were affected by the flood. Hans-Peter Diel’s house a day after the floods engulfed the first floor “We just kept going,” Diel says. “Along with many, many helpers by our side. Our biggest wish was to be back home for Christmas. And that wish has come true.” The Diels’ Christmas tree, decorated with colorful glass balls, stands in front of the house, for now. Inside, they are still plastering and painting. Furniture is still missing, as are doors, and kitchen furniture. “But the main thing is that we’re home again,” says Diel. Tomorrow, his wife Nicole wants to set up a nativity scene with the figurines they use every year: Joseph, baby Jesus, livestock and shepherds — they all survived the flood unscathed. From Schuld, I travel on, across temporary bridges and past the countless excavators used to rebuild the riverbank. They have heaped up small mounds of earth, tree roots, car tires and plastic pipes. Diel still has to remove debris to make room for the Christmas tree By the roadside, I see a few frostbitten pansies, planted around a granite stele. Someone has placed candles, angels made of wood or white stone around it. This little memorial was put up to commemorate a family of five who died in the flood. Five of a total of 134 people lost their lives that night in the Ahr valley. The parents had taken refuge on the roof of their house in Ahrbrück with their five-, six- and sixteen-year-old children as the water rose higher and higher. But the flood swept them away along with their house, and all that remained of it was the cellar.
Helpers came — and stayed
A few towns further downstream, in Altenahr, most of the houses on the main street are still standing. But the windows and doors of the former hotels and wine bars are barricaded with chipboard. At the Hotel Rittersprung, “Hoffnungswerk” (work of hope) is written on the doorbell. Erika Neustädter opens the door and invites me in. Past rough masonry and makeshift ceiling supports, we pass through a dark corridor into the kitchen. Brown leather sofas stand here, fairy lights hang from the wall, and a radiant heater provides some warmth. Four candles are burning in an Advent wreath on a long wooden table. Neustädter and her roommate Martin Petlewski take a seat. Erika Neustädter and Martin Petlewski share a makeshift office “I moved to this region to help,” Neustädter says. She joined the “Hoffnungswerk” association and wants to stay here for a year. The 30-year-old is assisting those affected by the flood to fill out numerous forms to get government aid. Federal and state governments have set up a €30 billion ($34.7 billion) fundto help flood victims. “Next, I will work in our mobile coffee shop where people can come for a chat over a cup of coffee. Many people here in the Ahr valley are traumatized. They need a chance to talk about what they experienced, to be able to come to terms with it.” Behind Altenahr, the valley turns into a gorge, with steep ascents to the right and left. The river winds in tight loops, and wine grows on the rocky slopes above. Will the tourists come back in spring to enjoy this view with a glass of Ahr wine? On the night of the flood, the picturesque landscape turned into a curse for those living here. In the narrow valley, the water rose to the height of a house. Now, whenever I see an empty space at the side of the road, I think: maybe this is where a house stood and people lived. Dieter Hess has moved into his makeshift home In the wine village of Dernau further downstream, Dieter Hess at least has his own roof over his head again, only 50 meters away from his destroyed house. The pensioner shows me the mobile home that the Workers’ Samaritan Foundation has set up for him. “Here I have my small kitchen with microwave and induction stove,” he tells me. “Over there is the bathroom and here’s the bedroom.” With its new, white furniture, the tiny living area seems like something straight out of an IKEA catalog. It doesn’t take us long to inspect the 26 sq.m. (280 sq.ft.) Hess now calls his home. “So this is where I’ll be celebrating Christmas,” says Hess. He and other retirees from Dernau moved into their new quarters just five days ago. They share a common room where they can meet for meals or a chat. For six months, Hess lived alone in a hotel room near the city of Bonn, 30 kilometers from here. Does it even feel like Christmas time to him now? “Not really,” says Hess. “My belief in God has waned. After all, an almighty God was also responsible for this flood.” The destruction is still clearly visible in the small town of Dernau below the Ahr valley vineyards At a time of despair and suffering, many people in the Ahr valley were grateful to see the many helpers who flocked to the flood area from near and far. Everywhere in the valley, you can now see banners and graffiti on houses thanking those who came to help. Jasmin Hachenberg drove here from Cologne on the first weekend after the flood. She helped clear the debris. Then she took her annual leave so she could stay longer. Then she quit her job in film production. “It just felt wrong to just go back to work. Here I can do something really meaningful,” she tells me. Jasmin Hachenberg has upended her life and moved to the Ahr valley to help Now Jasmin stands in a former freight shed at the Dernau train station dressed in a hoodie and quilted vest, stacking food donations onto shelves. “But please, no more cookies and chocolate Santas,” she calls out to a donor who walks in. “They’re already piling up.” At the small corner shop, Hachenberg and other volunteers provide Dernau residents with canned soups, deodorant and all kinds of everyday essentials. The helpers have received food donations, but also more than half a billion euros in money to help the flood victims. My journey continues down the Ahr. I pass one last rock, then the valley opens up and makes room for the largest city on the river, with 30,000 inhabitants: Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler. White smoke rises from the chimneys on most of the rooftops. But not from all of them. Some of the heating systems are running again. The streets are packed with vans carrying roofers, tilers, painters and other craftspeople. Their labor is in greater demand than ever before — and appointments are hard to come by. 82-year-old Hans Gerd Breuer nearly got trapped when the floods engulfed the basement of his home
A narrow escape
In Heppingen, a new district of the town, Hans Gerd Breuer and his son-in-law show me what was the basement of their house. Here, too, the flood swept away the heating system, and a new one has not yet been installed. Breuer points to a room that’s been cleared of mud and debris. “This is where I kept my model railroad set,” he says. “But now it’s all gone.” On the basement stairs, Breuer pauses briefly. His son-in-law explains that the 82-year-old can’t get the sound of the water out of his head. He had just gone down into the cellar to rescue some documents when the water started to rise. It rose so quickly that he nearly drowned. Breuer had taken out insurance against flood damage — unlike many homeowners here in the valley. But the insurance company is refusing to pay up. “They’re trying to drag everything out. Eight assessors have already been to my house to look at the damage. It’s grueling,” says Breuer. Until his insurance company pays up, Breuer will have to pay the workers out of his own pocket. “Christmas back in my home, that’s just not going to happen,” he says. He hopes to be able to move back in by Easter. Just before the Ahr reaches the Rhine, it passes gravel and sandbanks in a nature reserve. Here, too, the river raged. The wooden beams of a footbridge lie wildly scattered on the river banks, resembling conceptual art. The sandbanks of the nature reserve at the mouth of the Ahr are still scattered with debris It’s quiet here, only now and then you hear the call of a bird. “There are rare species here like bank sandpipers, common mergansers, grey wagtails,” says Karin Feret. “Today I’ve also seen some kingfishers.” As every day, the 80-year-old is out and about with binoculars and a camera. “I’ve spent my whole life here; I’m emotionally attached to the Ahr,” she says. “It’s always been beautiful here. But the way the Ahr raged this year, that is a whole different story.” Feret hopes that all the rare species will soon return to the area. And that normality will soon return for the people of the Ahr Valley as well. Edited by Rina Goldenberg While you’re here: Every Tuesday, TheTeCHyWorLD editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.