The people in the Ahr Valley are looking for a perspective, many feel alone. In the time before Christmas the pain grows. A report.
Schuld / Altenburg / Insul – Ira Schaible, a reporter for the German Press Agency, went on a search for clues in the Ahr valley. What she has seen and heard sounds depressing in part. After all, the flood disaster in July 2021 not only left 134 dead and hundreds injured, but also left traces of devastation and massive destruction. In the meantime hardly noticed in the media, many people still lack a perspective after the catastrophe.
This is how it is about showman Tim Himmes, who during Schaibel’s visit stands between discarded children’s carousel figures in his parents’ house and clears out an old party room. It’s cold there, the flood in the Ahr valley has torn a huge hole in the wall. The 21-year-old is shivering. A few kilometers further on, Bernd Gasper looks at Schneegriesel at the place where the house was before the water masses devastated it. The 69-year-old says: “I don’t know what to do next and what to do”. He fights back tears. He dreads Christmas. The first time in his life.
Like many others in the so badly damaged and idyllically situated valley, neither of them has any prospect of a better future. Both Himmes and Gasper have not yet received any money from the federal and state rebuilding funds, they say. Although they have long since sent their applications, they affirm.
Residents in the flood area Ahrtal: “Many houses are still on the brink”
Gerd, Bernd Gasper’s older brother, sees the situation as less bleak. “We now have a glimmer of hope that things will continue,” says the 80-year-old, who wants to start the interior renovation of his house in Altenburg, which has been relocated to the shell, as soon as possible. The walls are finally dry, a specialist has just confirmed. About half a year after the flood. Now is the appointment with the site manager for the planning. Gerd Gasper still has to ventilate intensively for several days to get rid of the remaining traces of mold. He anxiously hopes “that there will be no setbacks.”
Because of the oil contamination of the water, many residents of the Ahr Valley still do not know whether they have to demolish or not, he says of what he hears: “Many houses are still on the dump.” He was lucky himself. The samples from the masonry of his house were okay: no traces of oil.
A little hope also grew in his younger brother. Bernd Gasper talks about over 85 new building sites in the community of Altenahr, which was particularly hard hit by the flood and which had been reported on. But the disillusionment followed quickly: It was only a feasibility study, the responsible structure and approval department (SGD) North explained to him after several phone calls and admitted a “communication error”. “You can’t deal with people’s feelings here like that,” says the 69-year-old.
Hotel host in the Ahr Valley: Without the television he can no longer sleep at night
Now there is a reliable result of the study: A total of 15 areas with a size of 28.4 hectares are suitable for the construction of houses and apartments in the association to which his home village Altenburg belongs. 15 instead of 85. He put all his money into his parents’ house and spruced it up, says Gasper: “Even if someone offered me a house or a piece of land, how should I pay for it?” Now his old house is gone. He had hoped it would be his old-age insurance. All the new requirements, which he says are not suitable for age-appropriate, barrier-free living, keep him from building it again. “Doing nothing is terrible. I’m doomed, ”he says. “I am doomed.”
The municipality of Insul is around 15 minutes by car. Wolfgang Ewerts has renounced idleness and is rebuilding his hotel and two houses. He is happy about every day that he has a lot to do. And yet he too feels the pressure: “Some days are tough. When nothing works. You can’t go on your sofa at home then. You don’t have one. ”But things are progressing. Parquet is being laid in his bungalow. It should be habitable again by Christmas, as well as his son’s apartment in the neighboring house.
He points to the hotel: “But I also lost my real job. Not much has happened there yet. He is still waiting for the building permit for the new building on the site of the demolished extension. It was his parents’ house. Only a few guests come to eat in the part that has already been prepared. The fourth wave of the corona pandemic, 2G-plus requirements in the catering industry, it’s a vicious circle. Corona made itself felt in his coffers even before the flood. Now he watches TV at night. Without the flickering lights and sounds, he can no longer sleep.
Resident in the Ahr valley affected by the flood: “We are sinking into the morass”
Manuela Göken is a copy of Wolfgang Ewerts. You know and appreciate each other. The 50-year-old stands in front of her former house with great sadness. It has been gutted and cordoned off with a red and white traffic tape. “I miss everything here, especially now at Christmas time,” she sighs. After renting a place here for 16 years, she had moved, around 20 kilometers by road up the hill. There, above her village, she and her partner have rented and renovated a house built in 1920. It has a garden. But the ground is wet up there too.
“We’re sinking into the morass,” she says, exhausted. She received 16,000 euros in compensation, which is where she is ahead of the Gaspers. But of course that’s not enough in the back and front. “You don’t start again with that,” says Göken. She is missing her furniture, her piano. Instead of 200 square meters of living space, she now lives with her partner in 70. “We have a large family, and the house was always full at Christmas,” she says. She adorned her house, which always attracted attention with its lavish Christmas decorations. She lacks the fun of it. Christmas lights can hardly be seen down in the valley after the flood. In the places where hardly anyone lives after the flood, it’s dark after dark. And frighteningly quiet.
Ulla Dismon from the Altenahr community wants to change that. The congregation has set up Christmas trees with fairy lights everywhere, they are meant to be a sign. They are supposed to “bring lights into the Ahr valley and with it a bit of hope.” On the second weekend of Advent, the drivers of illuminated trucks and tractors wanted to do their part with a rally in the valley. “Those were goosebumps, very moving,” says Dismon. She lives in the flood area herself.
Advent celebrations in the Ahr valley: canceled due to Corona
With Bernd Gasper it remains dark for the time being. The not yet completely finished temporary bridge near his demolished house in Altenburg was actually supposed to light up in Advent, just like its predecessor, which was destroyed by the flood. A plumber from the village got the lamps. But then the electricity was not turned on as promised until the end of November. Gasper is disappointed. Advent celebrations with mulled wine, cookies and the state police orchestra were planned. Nothing came of that either. The fourth corona wave and with it the tightened protection against infection washed away hope.
Showman Himmes is waiting. To the report for the reconstruction fund and a relative who is helping to renovate the hallway and kitchen. He’s waiting for the man with the vibrating plate to turn the former front yard into a level surface. And he is waiting for the buddy with the mini excavator “to close the hole in the canal again”. He is proud of his own trailer. He owes it to various donors. But when he will be able to move from fair to fair again is in the stars.
Showman in the Ahr valley doesn’t want to lose his good mood despite the flood and its consequences
The children’s carousel is broken, the booth and several cars have swam away in the flood. Even before the catastrophe in the Ahr Valley, Corona had ruined his business, his father de-registered some stalls. Himmes wants to celebrate Christmas with part of his extended family. “I have seven sisters and two brothers,” he says. He wants to gather them together in his parents’ house. He has already repaired the living and dining room, he has painted and furnished it.
He promised his little sister to have the party room ready by New Year’s Eve. “But there is still this huge hole in the wall.” He has not lost his good mood and he wants to spread it further. “If everyone else has always been walking around so depressed, I can’t do that too.” (Mirko Schmid, Ira Schaible / dpa)