Digger driver, 68, hailed as hero of Germany's 10,000-year flood

Election candidate Armin Laschet pays tribute to man who helped prevent dam collapse

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A digger driver who helped to prevent a dam from bursting during Europe's catastrophic floods has been hailed as a hero by the frontrunner to be Germany's next leader.

Hubert Schilles, 68, volunteered to clear a blocked pipe and prevent a further disaster amid a historic deluge which killed more than 180 people in Germany and Belgium.

Armin Laschet, the leader of Germany's Christian Democrats and the premier of one of the states most affected by the flooding, said the Steinbach dam had been designed to manage a flood risk that would occur once every 10,000 years.

"That was exceeded in the last few days," Mr Laschet said. "Nobody would have thought it possible on this scale."

Praising Mr Schilles, the head of a local excavation company, Mr Laschet said: "It was a life-threatening task. He said he would take on this risk and he unblocked the pipe so that the water could run off.

"It showed a civil courage and commitment in an hour of emergency which helped us here and in many other places."

Mr Schilles subsequently told the newspaper FAZ that he drove the digger himself because he was not willing to let one of his employees take on the risk.

Mr Laschet was visiting the dam on Monday with German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer after emergency workers prevented a collapse.

As rescuers searched for bodies and police kept watch for looters preying on vulnerable homes, questions were mounting over whether authorities failed to alert people to the danger.

Forecasters had predicted the downpours but much of the rain arrived in the middle of the night catching many of the residents affected off guard.

Mr Seehofer deflected criticism on Monday by saying that weather warnings were a matter for regional leaders.

“It's not Berlin that declares a state of emergency, that is done locally,” he said. “Warnings go to the states and to the communities, which make decisions.”

With flooding and climate change set to be vital political issues in the run-up to September’s vote, Mr Seehofer said “some of the things I’m hearing now are cheap election rhetoric”.

The pre-election floods prompted comparisons to a deluge in 2002 which was credited with swinging that year's general election.

Mr Laschet's campaign suffered a setback when he was caught joking with colleagues during a sombre speech by the country's president. He apologised and said it was inappropriate.

By Monday afternoon the death toll in Germany had risen above 160. The floods killed dozens more people in Belgium, devastated parts of Austria and forced evacuations in the Netherlands.

German authorities said mobile networks and power lines were knocked out by the flooding, making it harder to send warnings.

“If warning equipment is destroyed and carried away with buildings, then that is a very difficult situation,” said Roger Lewentz, the interior minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, which has been hit hard.

Emergency workers “tried very quickly to react ... but this was an explosion of the water in moments,” he said.

The floods left entire communities without power and residents trapped inside their homes, while houses collapsed.

As the waters receded, emergency workers were sealing off flooded areas, carrying people to safety and protecting empty houses from potential looters, a German police union said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is not standing at the election, is set to draw up a financial aid package with her Cabinet this week.

With climate change raising the threat of extreme weather, attention will turn to whether Germany can improve its disaster management plans.

The events of the past week "show that we need to do more and to improve," said Martina Fietz, a deputy government spokeswoman.

The dramatic scale of it was not clearly communicated
Gerd Landsberg

Armin Schuster, the head of the civil protection agency, told German television that 150 warning notices were sent out via apps and social media.

But he said it was not always possible to say exactly which areas would be hit and how much rain would fall.

Asked where warning sirens had sounded, Mr Schuster said authorities would "have to investigate that”.

Gerd Landsberg, head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, called for an overhaul of the early warning system.

He told German media that the siren system should be adapted so that people can receive messages even when power is cut.

"People had the impression that it was just heavy rain. The dramatic scale of it was not clearly communicated," he said.

Updated: July 19, 2021, 3:08 PM