A year ago, people in the Ahr Valley experienced a natural disaster. Unimaginable masses of water damage or destroy thousands of buildings, 134 people die. A year later, the trauma is still present in many people, and the damage is far from being repaired.
One year after the flood disaster, 69-year-old Bernd Gasper from the Ahr village of Altenburg still doesn't know where he can return to. His house is no longer there, but he wants to go back to his homeland. His older brother Gerd and his wife Elfriede, on the other hand, hope to be able to move back into their house in the same district in the fall. "But then it gets lonely," says the 81-year-old. Hardly any people live in Altenburg, which was badly damaged. Swallows nest in vacant houses, and one is always torn down.
Bernd's son Achim lacks a clear perspective for the desired return, as does his father. Achim's house in Altenburg is still there, but after problems with his insurance he has to wait for the outcome of an expert opinion in his transitional quarters near Münster in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Wolfgang Ewerts from Insul finally hosted guests again in his newly built beer garden on Pentecost and actually wanted to open the hotel again right away. After a pipe burst in the middle of the night, however, he had to remove brand new furniture and floors from the freshly renovated guest rooms. "We have to keep fighting," says the hotelier. After two years of Corona and a year of non-stop reconstruction without income, the money is slowly running out - despite insurance. Ewerts, who learned to swim in the Ahr as a child, is also amazed at the significantly slower flow rate of the Rhine tributary and the many algae. He fears that the water quality will change in the summer heat.
After 16 years together in a rented house in Insul, Manuela Göken and her partner Daniel Schmitz are now trying to build a new life in a small house a few kilometers up the hill. "The townscape is completely different," says Göken in front of her garden in Insul, which was once designed with great attention to detail. Since the flood it has been a dreary wasteland.
"Are you coming back?" Ask the islanders driving past the couple. Schmitz in particular is happy about the new residential area around 400 meters above the Ahr after the traumatic flood night. "People think it's possible. But when it rains heavily, everything comes back up again," he says. Göken describes the trauma with tears in his eyes: "In heavy rain, I can imagine how my Daniel and the dog must have suffered during the night."
The waitress had been working in Bonn-Bad Godesberg on the evening of the flash flood - July 14, 2021 - and had not been able to get home because of the mass of water. The landline and cell phone no longer worked, and her husband could not be reached. In great concern, she desperately tried to find out more on the internet. The next day she accidentally came across a dpa photo showing her boyfriend at her house in Insul on a water tank in front of the rubble of the disaster. "That was the very first sign of life I had from him."
The summer of 2022 brought fresh green, some flowers and warmth to the Ahr Valley. But he cannot drive away the bad experiences, the worries about the future and the grueling wait for a return to a previous life or at least for a perspective. "The euphoria for construction is gone," says Bernd Gasper, whose large family has lived in Altenburg for generations and lost several houses in the flood. His mother-in-law died. Gasper's balance sheet after a year: "It was neither unbureaucratic nor quick." The idea of the model region doesn't really work either - many ideas fizzled out. A disaster and flood alarm plan for the district is still missing.
Gasper also misses a flood protection plan for the approximately 85-kilometer-long Ahr - from the source in Blankenheim in North Rhine-Westphalia in the Eifel to the mouth of the Rhine in Sinzig. He will not be in his home town of Altenburg on the anniversary of the flood disaster. "My wife and I don't want to and can't do that." And: "It will definitely be difficult, wherever." "Politics didn't cover themselves with glory during this crisis," says winemaker Alexander Stodden from the wine-growing town of Rech.
"It wears me down that things aren't progressing," says Stodden. "There are no materials and no artisans." For weeks he has been waiting for the painter and for a fire protection door that has been ordered for a long time. Experts have now estimated the damage caused by the flash flood in his family business from 1900 - the renowned Jean Stodden red wine estate - at around two million euros. After months of toil, he is now being asked again and again whether he had had any water at all. "I feel a bit like an oasis in here," he says in his wine cellar. "It's still chaos outside." However, sales are far from being as high as they were before the flood, also because there were no overnight accommodations along the Ahr. "People don't come because Bad Neuenahr is still a ruin, and Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler isn't being built because people aren't coming," says Stodden. "There is a lack of foresight."
Gerd Gasper and his wife Elfriede are also waiting for craftsmen. The screed should actually have been laid long ago. "There's nothing you can do right now," says the 81-year-old tensely. The craftsman has to serve 50 construction sites, says his wife. "We've already been offered two houses, but I don't know if we can afford them," reports Bernd Gasper. Her house in the immediate vicinity of the Ahr and at the same time her parents' house was demolished soon after the flood disaster.
The investment and structure bank (ISB), which takes over the payments from the federal and state reconstruction fund, which is equipped with around 15 billion euros for Rhineland-Palatinate, has still not decided on his application submitted in late autumn 2021. At the beginning of May he received a letter from the ISB, but he was only asked if he had bought a new plot of land in the meantime. "What should I have paid for that with?"
There is no established procedure for "replacement projects" like Bernd Gasper's and every case is different, explains the ISB spokeswoman, which is why it is still unclear after a year how things can continue for Gasper and his wife, who are in an alternative quarters near Bonn have stayed.
Nevertheless, Bernd Gasper is already planning to cut a hedge at the St. Maternus Chapel in Altenburg with a former neighbor. "The Steinbeisser are starting again," says the busy pensioner, referring to his association, which has organized many things in the village on a voluntary basis for many years. "It's green here again, but nobody cares about it," says his brother Gerd, also a member of the Steinbeisser. The 81-year-old hopes that a little more life will return to Altenburg by Christmas and that it will then be less lonely. Although the reconstruction of his house with the help of the insurance is actually working well, the past few months have been "very nerve-wracking".
Stodden says his children, ages 12, 14 and 16, are handling the situation. They are happy that their pool is back up and can now easily be reached by bus to the container school village of Ringen, around twelve kilometers away. "We will never get the money we lost," says Göken. "But we got off to a good start with what we got." She and her partner have taken the time together much more intensely since the disaster. "We now have a lot more time for family," she says in view of her new home, which is a good 60 square meters and is much smaller. "We're going to have a nice bottle of wine on the anniversary and be happy and grateful that we have each other and sort of made a fresh start."
The couple, like the Gaspers, did not take part in the memorial service in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler. "We have our commemorative corners," says Göken, referring to the many helpers and supporters. "We are so grateful. But it will be a long time before we have recovered mentally, physically and above all financially."