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Local Journalist Says Erftstadt Area Has Never Seen Such Devastating Floods

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Houses reduced to sticks of lumber, a castle swept away, torrents of water carrying cars down streets like toy sailboats - these are just a few of the images of destruction brought on by some of the heaviest rainfall Western Europe has seen in a century. Hardest hit is Germany, where the death toll is rising and hundreds remain unaccounted for. Holger Klein is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, but he's actually on vacation visiting his parents about 25 miles southwest of Cologne, where there has been devastating flooding. Welcome.

HOLGER KLEIN: Hello.

CHANG: Hello. Can you just tell us, Holger, how safe is it where you are right now?

KLEIN: Where I am, it is perfectly safe because my parents are living on a plateau right above the floodings, so children are playing in the gardens. And in the distance, you can hear helicopters flying and sirens going off. This is some kind of bizarre situation I'm in because I'm missing nothing. I have food. I have electricity. The water is running. Just a few kilometers away, people are suffering and their houses have been washed away when a sandpit ran full of water and undermined half of the village. And so all the houses collapsed. The only thing we don't have is internet access.

CHANG: That's good to hear that you are safe. And I understand that you have just come back from a trip around town on your motorcycle. Can you just tell us what you saw?

KLEIN: I tried to do a trip on the motorcycle, but I was sent away by the firefighters that belong to the emergency responders there. The water seems to be retreating. But the town of Blessem, which is about 2 miles away from my parents' house, it looks like a war zone. The water is retreating, but there's debris all around town. And it's a very small village, actually. There are only about 2,000 people living there. The local castle from the 14th century has been washed away, dead animals lying around.

CHANG: Wow.

KLEIN: Cars have been floating around.

CHANG: Were there warnings about the possibility of flooding and evacuations before all this happened?

KLEIN: Nope, which is basically the problem, because what we're seeing here looks like exactly the circumstances the experts have been warning us about. They said prepare for flooding. And we're used to flooding here in this region. But mainly, it's winter floods when the ice is melting. And this Erftstadt is named after a very small river, which is usually about 6 feet wide. And sometimes it goes over the banks and a few cellars run full of water. But we've never seen this before.

CHANG: You have never, ever seen flooding this massive, this - on this scale?

KLEIN: No, on this scale, never before. And everybody I spoke to said we have never seen this before, not in this region and not in this time of year.

CHANG: Now, Germany is known for incredibly well-built infrastructure.

KLEIN: (Laughter).

CHANG: So are you surprised - you're laughing. Is that a misconception?

KLEIN: No, but it's the - it's the German myth abroad. Yes, our infrastructure is very, very good. But if your flood management is poor, the best infrastructure in the world won't save you.

CHANG: Right. Well, Chancellor Angela Merkel was visiting President Biden in Washington yesterday, and climate change was one of the main topics on the agenda. Merkel has expressed her deep sympathy. She said her heart goes out to the people who are suffering right now. And, Holger, I know you don't have any internet right now, so maybe you have not been following these official statements, but what about the local official response? What kind of actions are you seeing near your parents' town right now?

KLEIN: You can see - I don't know - hundreds of thousands of people from emergency response teams, from the Red Cross, even our army has reached the region and is trying to help. There are boats everywhere. There are helicopters everywhere. And there are hundreds, maybe thousands of helping hands of emergency response teams flocking here.

CHANG: That is freelance journalist Holger Klein talking to us from the Erftstadt region of Germany. Thank you so much for making the time to speak with us. And please stay safe.

KLEIN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.