Risk Nexus Flash Floods: The underestimated natural hazard
In late May and early June 2016, storms ‘Elvira’ and ‘Friederike’ resulted in extreme rainfall exceeding 180 mm in some regions of southern Germany. Some towns were especially hard hit. The center of Braunsbach in Baden-Württemberg was destroyed when a small tributary to the Kocher river overflowed. In the town of Simbach/Inn in Bavaria, five people died when a local creek rose to over five meters from a normal depth of just half a meter. Over 150 people had to be rescued. Fifty schoolchildren were forced to take shelter in their school in Triftern until flood waters subsided. Floods damaged over 5,000 homes. In Simbach alone, floods left about 1,000 people homeless.
Germany has much experience with intense river floods, like those that affected parts of the country in 2002 and 2013. In such floods, people generally receive adequate warnings, as it can take days for water levels to rise. In the 2016 floods, however, people in villages were often taken by surprise as rivers rose and flash floods developed, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Evacuation plans designed for slower river flooding failed to work.
Why were the areas affected by the latest floods caught unprepared? Could the extent of the events that left 18 people dead across Europe, including France and Austria, and caused billions of euros in property damage have been better anticipated? Did weather warnings (the German weather service DWD issued over 3,000 of them) lack clarity, or did such warnings come too late?
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