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Natural Disasters

Floods leave their mark on German livelihoods

Floods in Saxony have begun to subside, but only to show the extent of the damage done by the swollen rivers. Costs are estimated to be in the billions of euros and many people have lost their livelihoods.

The villages and neighborhoods in Saxony that are still dealing with flood waters are eerily silent. Police and emergency crews do not allow strangers to enter the area. In potentially dangerous situations, when the sodden dikes threaten to burst under the water's pressure, even residents are barred from returning to their homes.

Thomas Hase lives in the Lössnig neighborhood of the Saxon town of Strehla - a ghost town in the wake of the disastrous Elbe River floods. The floor tiler, his wife and their five-month-old son just moved into a new house in a great location with a large garden bordered by fields.

A complete write-off

Just three weeks ago, Hase finished renovating a separate basement apartment. The tenants were due to move in next month. The rent was intended to help pay for the bank loan and to co-finance the family's new heating system that Hase spent his entire savings of 30,000 euros ($ 39,900) on.

As he faces the ruins of that plan, the sturdy man can barely hold back his tears. The river flooded the fields and inundated his large property, too, turning it into a lake. The ground floor of his house is flooded, as are the separate apartment, and the heating and electricity systems - a complete write-off.

Thomas Hase 
on garage roof, sandbags on ground 
Photo: DW / Dan Hirschfeld, 11.6.13

Thomas Hase was devastated by the damage done to his new home

There is no flood insurance in this region, and even if there were, premiums would be extremely high - too high for Hase. For the time being, his wife and son are staying with friends in nearby Grossenhain - only a half hour away by car, but because of the closed Elbe bridges, the trip takes more than two hours. Hase rarely sees them at the moment, phone calls are the best he can do. He has no idea what the future will bring for him and his family.

Desperate battle against the floods

Holger Reichl is in a similar situation. A few years ago, he bought the Lunzenauer Paper and Cardboard factory in Lunzenau, a small town between Chemnitz and Leipzig. He spent his entire savings on the small business, where 32 employees produce packing materials. Reichl designed many of the machines himself and he and his team put his ideas into practice.

The entrepreneur pulled his business through the economic crisis, took out loans and kept everything was running smoothly. Every day, several trucks piled with paper rolls as tall as a man left the premises. The customers were content.

The evening the disaster alarm sounded, Reichl hurried over to his factory, only to find that many employees were there already, hard at work. They backed engines off the machines and tried to store the massive special motors on pallets as far from the ground as possible to protect them from the water. Engines even dangled from ropes attached to the ceiling.

piles of siggy paper and cardboard Foto: DW / Dan Hirschfeld
zugeliefert von: Henrik Böhme

The floods soaked the paper factory in Lunzenau

Reichl and his team also built makeshift protection against the water, sealing the doors and gates to the production hall with wooden boards, foam insulation and sandbags. They aimed for a slightly higher mark than the last disastrous flood reached in 2002.

Then, the water came. At 9:30 p.m., the water stood at one meter at the sealed gates - and stayed out while the staff continued to dismantle machines. Half an hour later, the water surged through a door. Reichl and his team grabbed electric pumps, doggedly fighting against the flood. They manage to pump out more water than seeped in - and were buoyed by hope.

Uncertain future

Suddenly, at 11 p.m., the lights went out. The Zwickau Mulde river right by the factory had turned into a raging mass of water and torn away a bridge that also carried the factory's power cables. The lights were out, the pumps stood still and the water began to rise. Finally, the water level was 20 centimeters too high, the floods swelled over the sealed gates, and the factory was lost.

Reichl said he has no idea what to expect or what to tell his 32 employees and their families. When the water receded, everyone pitched in the clean-up efforts for days, sweeping huge amounts of mud and flotsam from the production halls.

Riechl, who has no idea whether his machines will actually run again, is insured against floods, but he does not know how much the company will pay - or when he will receive any money.

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