The German valley that was swept away: ‘The cemeteries gave up their dead’ | Flooding

When the waters rose, Meike and Dörte Näkel weren’t worried. People in this part of the world, the Ahr valley in Germany, are used to it. The river flooded in 2016, bursting its banks and rising almost four metres, and before that in 2013, 1910 and 1804. Many lives were lost in 1804 and 1910, in catastrophes remembered only in stories read from history books to bored schoolchildren. The sisters’ great-grandmother Anna Meyer lived through the 1910 flood, although she never spoke of it to Meike and Dörte.

They are the fifth generation of their family to make wine in the village of Dernau. Meike, 44, is blond, thoughtful and a little serious; Dörte, 42, who has dark hair that comes down to her waist, is quicker to laugh. Both have the same steady gaze. Their father, Werner Näkel, is a hero in the Ahr, widely credited with transforming it from a place where sugar was added routinely to cheap, bad wine into a region with award‑winning vintages.

After studying at the prestigious Hochschule Geisenheim University, the sisters took over the family estate, Meyer-Näkel, and its 23-hectare (57-acre) vineyard. Its winery, where the wine is made and stored, is in a warehouse on the banks of the Ahr.

Dörte (left) and Meike Näkel. Photograph: Sandra Fehr

This is red wine country. Tourists come from across Germany and the surrounding countries to hike the red wine trail, walking from village to village to drink pinot noir from local producers, sometimes at tables in their vineyards. The hills are stubbled with vines that, from a distance, look like the quills on a porcupine. The slopes are so steep that you wonder how anyone could pick the grapes without tumbling down, yet every September the harvest is brought in without incident, mostly by hand. The Ahr threads its way through the villages of Schuld, Altenahr and Dernau, then Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler – the biggest town in the Ahr valley – and on to Sinzig, before joining the Rhine near Bonn.

By 8am on 14 July 2021, the rain was pounding and the river was near-bursting. The sisters and their employees worked quickly to lay down sandbags and close the doors and windows to the winery. When everything was secure, Meike and Dörte sent everyone home.

After that, it all happened so quickly. Around 10pm, the Ahr burst its banks. A gate was smashed by a wave of water. The winery was flooded within an hour. The corrugated iron sheeting on the warehouse walls began to buckle and fold. The water rose so quickly that the sisters took refuge up a flight of stairs in the winery, but they weren’t sure if the metal platform on which they were sitting would collapse. There was no way of accessing the roof and nowhere else to go. “We thought: it’s not so far – maybe we can swim to the vineyards, to get to a drier place,” says Dörte.

Flood damage at the Meyer-Näkel winery in Dernau.

They entered the water. It was only 15 metres or so from the winery to higher ground. “But there was no chance of swimming,” Dörte says. “The water just took you where it wanted to.” For a while, they clung to a fence, until the water rose so much that the fence was beneath their feet. The water was five metres deep, at least, and fast-flowing. It was relentless; they could no more swim their way out of it than they could make it run uphill. Just when they feared the worst, the sisters washed into a plum tree.

They would spend the next eight hours shivering in its branches. It was so loud. Boom. Crash. Boom. The roar of the water, but also the screams of their neighbours, trapped on their roofs. They had a torch. Terrifying, random things streaked past in the dark. Trees, cars, shipping containers, petrol tankers; entire houses, detached from their foundations like boats that had slipped their moorings. The tree on which they were sitting suddenly didn’t seem so sturdy. “There was no chance to get to another place,” says Meike. “The strength of the water was so incredible.”

The sisters turned off the light. If something was barrelling towards them, a chewed-up tree or a fuel truck, it was better not to know. If death couldn’t be avoided, why look it in the face? The sisters sat in the darkness, listening to the shrieks and groans of the crashing water and the wails from nearby rooftops, and waited.

Upstream of Dernau, the chaos had begun hours earlier. The rain had fallen with such intensity that by 5.30pm the main road in Altenahr had become a second river. People sought refuge on higher ground, in the village’s 15th-century church. Around 9pm, the villagers who had stayed on lower land to protect their homes and businesses began shouting to each other. The river is coming, they yelled. The river is coming.

Across the region, 150mm of rain fell in 72 hours. The water level is believed to have risen as much as 10 metres that night, although no one knows for certain, because all the measuring apparatus was washed away, leaving only high-water marks on buildings for the scientific record.

All over the Ahr, in Ahrweiler, in Dernau, in Altenahr, the cemeteries gave up their dead. The freshly buried rose first, then the long-departed. Rescue workers would later sift through the mud and the silt to recover these bodies, but also those whose lives were stolen by the flood waters. That night, 188 people died in Germany, many older people who were asleep or unable to get to higher floors.

Flooding on the Ahr, a week after its banks burst. Photograph: Friedemann Vogel/EPA

The Ahr valley is the Florida of Germany, with a high percentage of elderly residents who retire to towns such as Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler for the climate and scenery. Many were not warned of what was coming, even when it might have saved lives. Twelve disabled people died in a care home in Sinzig nine and a half hours after the Ahr had flooded upstream. Evacuation should have been possible. German prosecutors are considering bringing negligent homicide charges against an Ahrweiler district official; the individual in question denies any wrongdoing.

Entire buildings were washed away with their inhabitants trapped inside. Bodies were found as far away as Rotterdam, 150 miles north-west. Steffi Nelles, 48, the owner of Haus Caspari, a family-owned guesthouse on the main square in Altenahr, watched in horror from her upstairs window as the house across from her was wrenched from its foundations with an elderly couple stuck inside. She didn’t know if her building would be next.

In Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, scarcely a street in either of the twinned towns was spared. About 8,800 homes were destroyed across the region. When the waters receded on the morning of 15 July, people who had lived in Ahrweiler their entire lives couldn’t orient themselves. “It was like I was standing on the moon,” says Marc Adeneuer, 60, a wine producer. “It was unbelievable.” He stood in the town square for 15 minutes, trying to understand where he was. He went to the cemetery where his son and his father were buried. Their headstones had disappeared.

In their plum tree, as they waited for a rescue they weren’t sure would come, Meike and Dörte tried to keep their spirits up. First, they assessed their options. What had become of the 380 barrels in their winery? Had any survived intact? They soon came to the conclusion that everything must have been destroyed. They tried to remember if they had flood insurance. (They did.) The next question: would they cut their losses and walk away? “It sounds really crazy, but I think it was a survival thing, from the brain,” says Meike. They were in accord: they would rebuild. “We are like our wine,” says Meike. “We have deep roots inside.”

In the historic town of Ahrweiler today, the fish-scale roofs glint in the winter sun and the medieval timbered houses lean charmingly. But inside the buildings, everything is new, from the plush carpets to the thick, richly patterned wallpaper. In Hotel Villa Aurora, the most luxurious hotel in town, art deco lamps gleam gold and bronze. At the nearby Adenauer winery, you can drink from fine crystal glasses on pale wood benches. Everything is new and nicely done.

It was paid for with insurance money, government money – federal and state authorities made available €30bn (about £26bn) for reconstruction – and the owners’ own funds. “We have to get away from this idea that: ‘Oh my God, there was a flood, we are such poor people, please come here and visit us because it’s so bad,’” says Carolin Groß, the head of marketing at Ahrwein, an association of local wine producers. “No. We want to talk about quality.” Adeneuer agrees: “We don’t want pity.”

But the tourists haven’t returned in their old numbers. There aren’t enough hotels open, but, more importantly, the infrastructure isn’t there. The railway line between Walporzheim and Ahrbrück was washed away in the flood and won’t be rebuilt until the end of 2025. The picturesque Ahr cycle path is mostly closed. Many of the campsites that appealed to younger and more cost-conscious tourists won’t reopen; they should never have been permitted in the first place. The hillsides are too rocky and vertiginous, while the schist bedrock doesn’t allow water to infiltrate, meaning that rainwater shoots off the hills in torrential flows.

Steffi Nelles (right) and Andrea Babic inside Haus Caspari in Altenahr, which is still a construction site nearly three years on. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/The Guardian

Without enough beds, or a way of getting to the nearby cities of Cologne and Bonn, the tourists mostly don’t come; when they do, they visit only for the day, leaving before dinner instead of wining and dining until late in the night. “When you want to spend your holiday, you want to have it nice,” says Dörte. “It’s understandable. People want to help the Ahr valley, but they don’t want to walk through the dirt on their holidays for two weeks.”

All along the Ahr, and especially in the villages further up the valley, construction trucks spray gravel across the road and spindly cranes pick at the hillsides. The landscape is pockmarked with diggers and piles of earth. Everywhere you go, you see construction placards and metal fencing, workers in hard hats and scaffolders with poles, portable toilets and piles of building materials. Almost three years on, children go to school in shipping containers. You will find derelict houses along all the main streets in Altenahr and Dernau. Some are being renovated by students, some await demolition, some have owners who are involved in tortuous disputes with governments and insurers.

Nelles is in the latter camp. When I visit her at Haus Caspari, the Altenahr guesthouse her grandfather bought after the second world war, she is close to tears from stress. The main, eight-bedroom guesthouse – there are two smaller buildings that Nelles hasn’t even begun to refurbish – is a building site, with more than a dozen people at work. We struggle to hear each other over the burring of drills. Nelles says she was assured by various professionals that government funds and insurance payouts would cover the cost of her rebuild, only to realise later that she couldn’t claim as much as she had hoped, by which point work had already started. She is €800,000 short of what she needs to complete the work.

“So, we have no plan for what to do now,” she says, blinking back tears. “This is my parents’ house. We made this plan and everything was going to be finished for them and they were looking forward to it. They’re in their late 70s. They can’t really understand it.”

Altenahr’s main square in the aftermath of the flooding.

After the floods, when the entire German press decamped to the Ahr, Nelles’ neighbours gave interviews and started crowdfunding pages that raised thousands of euros. “You think you’re so stupid,” says Nelles. “Why didn’t you go on television and put your kids in the front row and say: ‘We are poor people – please give us money’? Because other people did that and they are now finished with building – they live a good life.”

Hundreds of people travelled to the Ahr in the aftermath of the floods to work as volunteers. Nelles would be working in a human chain to shift flood debris and suddenly a total stranger would join the chain. “You had this feeling you are not alone,” she says. “People came and helped you.” But there were also disaster tourists. “Families with their children, in white trousers, taking pictures,” Nelles says in disbelief. She felt “like a monkey in a zoo”.

At the time of my visit, Nelles has only enough money to pay the builders for another fortnight. “We don’t know what will happen,” she says. “In the next two weeks, something must happen. I don’t know what. But something must work out.” She takes me on a tour of the partly refurbished building. The reception area has been freshly tiled with green porcelain; the day the tiles arrived was a good day. “For a few minutes, you feel really good,” she says. “You think you did a really good job. But then reality hits you again.”

We go into the basement, where an electrician is at work on a fuse board that takes up most of the wall. This will be Haus Caspari’s kitchen, where Nelles’ sister Andrea Babic, 45, will bake her cakes, which are famous in the village. Babic is with us. She inspects her €8,000 industrial cake mixer, which has been recently delivered.

The sisters have invested in better windows, relocated a lift, blocked up their basement windows and built a small wall to go around the perimeter of the guesthouse. But it won’t protect them from another flood of the magnitude of 2021’s – they know that. So much expense to rebuild. All that equipment in their basement. And the Ahr scarcely three metres away.

There is a well-known term in hydrological circles: flood dementia. “Every couple of decades, people tend to forget about historical events,” says Stefan Greiving, a professor of spatial planning at the Technical University of Dortmund.

The Ahr has always flooded, sometimes with significant loss of life. In 1910, 200 people died in the valley. In a tunnel leading into Altenahr, plaques denote the high-water marks of historic floods. “In the immediate period after the event, there’s a small window of time for implementing and approving radical solutions,” says Greiving. “But this is probably limited to a couple of months after the event.” After the 1910 floods, officials considered building a reservoir near Rech, a small village in the Ahr, to collect water in case of flooding. Instead they built the Nürburgring racing track, to create jobs during a time of high unemployment.

Flood-affected communities in the Ahr are actually disincentivised from making their homes more flood-resilient. In the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, which includes Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler and surrounding villages, people are required to rebuild on a one-for-one basis, meaning exactly as they were. If you are rebuilding a school, say, and you want to move the science laboratory from the ground floor to the third, so that equipment can be protected in the case of another flood, insurers and government funds won’t cover the cost of fitting. Everything needs to be as it was.

“Sometimes, I have the feeling that people could forget about the floods too early,” says Charlotte Burggraf, an employee of the district administration of Ahrweiler. “When you ask them in 10 years, they’ll say: ‘The floods won’t come again.’ But they will. And you don’t know when. You need to be getting protection and you need early-warning systems. And from what I see, that’s maybe a problem in the future. People may forget how dramatic the events of 2021 really were.”

The devastation in Schuld. Photograph: Sascha Steinbach/EPA

Across the Ahr, people have rebuilt as before, without flood mitigation measures in place. “We see this problem,” says Meike. “They do exactly as it was before. That is a very strange thing. For a lot of people, it’s a very positive mental thing, making things how they were. Perhaps they try to help themselves, by making it as it was.”

The flood of 14 July was particularly catastrophic for multiple reasons. It was the summer, so no one was prepared for it. It happened during the night-time. The authorities failed to issue warnings and mandatory evacuations until it was too late. But it was more than that. The Ahr had not flooded with significant loss of life for more than 100 years. People weren’t prepared. And their homes had been built in places that never should have been inhabited, let alone densely populated.

The Romans knew to build away from the Ahr; the medieval church fathers, too. The churches in Altenahr and Dernau did not flood, because they were built on higher land. When Dörte and Meike were children, they had to walk uphill to their school, situated in an old monastery in Ahrweiler. They would gripe about the steep climb. But the monastery didn’t flood, either. Their father used to tell them that, when he was a child, there were flood-retention areas around the Ahr, which are now built up. Houses were built up stone steps from the road.

“Historical knowledge was more valued in the past,” says Greiving. “Most city centres were built on top of hills, in safe areas. The later extensions to the city entered the flood-prone areas.” Even the best-designed flood defences may fail, particularly in an age of climate emergency. “There is a responsibility for individuals to prepare themselves for extreme events,” says Greiving. “And that is, in our modern societies, particularly in larger cities, an enormous weakness.”

Meike says: “I think, in the past, people were more careful about where they built. Why have we forgotten? Are we so stupid or self‑confident that nothing can harm us? That is kind of crazy.”

When they were studying wine cultivation at university, the Näkel sisters were taught to strip everything away and use only the evidence of their senses. They learned to smell things before tasting them. “Who, in our society, smells an apple before biting into the apple?” asks Meike.

Their father, Werner, had already taught them that winemakers should think not in years, or even decades, but generations. A vineyard will take five years before it produces its first yield and a decade before the yield is of any quality. “The older the vines, the better the wine will be,” says Meike. The week before we meet, Dörte and Meike replanted a vineyard Werner planted with his father when he was 18. The crop was still good, but the rows were too close together for modern methods of harvesting. “Otherwise, we’d have kept it,” says Dörte. “Because they were really nice old vines, with the roots going very deep.”

For years, the sisters had seen the climate crisis affect the way they worked. Their summers went from being wet to dry and hot. There were weeks without rain, something that would have been impossible in the past. Rather than removing the leaves from the vine to keep the grapes dry and healthy, now the sisters left them, to cast a shadow. The harvest moved forward a month, from October to September.

After the July 2021 floods, they knew that climate breakdown would make these extreme weather events more likely. “My father always said: ‘We cannot change the weather,’” says Meike. “We have to work with it.” They drive me to their vineyard, up twisting roads. The vines tumble away from us down the hillside. “Humans are just tiny against nature,” says Dörte, surveying her vines from the top of a hill.

Werner taught them to plan long-term when planting their vines, to understand and respect nature. Their university lecturers taught them to listen to their senses. So, Dörte and Meike have decided to relocate their winery from the banks of the Ahr to the top of a hill. It took them a year and a half to persuade the farmer to sell the land. Their insurance will not cover the relocation, so they are putting up the money themselves. They hope to start construction this winter.

“We are very sure that, in the lives of our children, or our grandchildren, something like the flood will happen again,” says Meike. “And when you look at how a winery works, or what it means to work in a vineyard, we are always talking in generations. What I plan now must also stand in the next generation.” So, they have to move the winery. It’s the only responsible thing to do.

After the flood, the sisters thought they had lost everything. But then the phone calls came: a barrel of wine had been found in this person’s garage, or in front of that building. It was a race against time to recover the 300kg barrels before the wine spoiled in the sun. In all, the sisters rescued nine barrels. They call these wines the Lost Barrels. Afterwards, they had to bring in that year’s harvest. “We didn’t have our own machines; we didn’t even have a bucket,” says Dörte. They wanted to commemorate, in a small way, everything they had been through. They didn’t want to avoid talking about the flood, as their great‑grandmother had done. So they put waves on their 2021 bottles. “We want to keep the memory alive,” says Meike. “To talk about the flood.”

Meike and Dörte are outliers in the Ahr. It has been nearly two years since the floods and flood preparedness is not on the national agenda. Some municipalities have implemented useful initiatives, but there is no overall leadership, says Greiving. “There is no long-term vision. What is the overarching goal or objective for a flood-resilient Ahr valley in 20 years?”

Before I leave the Ahr, I walk along the main promenade that connects Ahrweiler and Bad-Neuenahr. The river is low and gentle today. There is construction all along it, on both sides of the bank. Recently rebuilt houses sparkle in the sun. I pause in front of a white, three-storey house that looks to be freshly repainted. A child’s bedroom on the ground floor faces the river. I can see a brightly patterned duvet and clowns hanging from a mobile. From their bedroom, a few metres away, the child will see the Ahr flow past. As they sleep, it will continue to flow, in all its danger and beauty.

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *