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After the Flood

Somehow, everything that happened in the Ahr valley this summer was just too much.  The relentless rain, the flooding, the horrifying number of drowned people (more than 130).  After the flood, the Ahr valley was devastated like after a war, and a huge relief campaign set in.

The first to arrive were the professionals:  firefighters, the THW – Germany’s federal disaster relief organisation – the Red Cross, the military.  They all came with heavy equipment properly lined up in well-organized convoys.  When the volunteers poured in a few days later, things looked different: Of course no heavy equipment, but also no proper line-ups, no organization, nothing, just loads of people eager to help.  Which is a serious challenge.  How on earth can all those people get into the valley after the flood left hardly a street negotiable?  After all, the floods washed away more than just a few sections of the only major road in the valley, the driftwood and everything else the water carried with it like cars, trailers, trucks, and shacks, destroyed most of the bridges.  There also was garbage all around – flooded furniture, appliances, carpets, bicycles, household items of all kind, … more bulky garbage than normally collected in four decades jammed the streets after this one night.

Two entrepreneurs from the Ahr valley came up with a brilliant idea how to handle this wave of volunteers.  They established the so called volunteer-shuttle.  Right above the Ahr valley, at the new Haribo production plant, they set up a transfer point for buses into the Ahr valley by turning the green fields around the plant into parking spaces for hundreds of cars and pitching a huge festival tent as a communicative centre for the volunteers.  The buses, by the way, were also driven by volunteers.  Although, particularly during the first few weeks, it wasn’t only buses that went into the valley, but everything the organizers could get hold of.  Regular cars, vans, minibuses, all of them crammed with people, and if available with an open trailer behind, accommodating even more passengers.  Which luckily was not a problem with the police.  Sure, they know all the rules, but it turned out that they also know when to better bend them for a while, and so they helpfully waved the hopelessly overloaded vehicles through.

And the organizers of the volunteer-shuttle do more than just organizing the transfer into the valley.  They collect support requests from the valley and distribute them among the volunteers, and they provide the volunteers with all sorts of equipment.  Shovels, buckets, crowbars, demolition hammers, extension cords, power generators … – you name it, it’s all been donated to the hardware tent in the volunteer camp.

Down in the valley, the need for help is overwhelming.  In the first few weeks, the main jobs are carrying bulky garbage onto the streets from inundated basements, ground floors, and sometimes even upper floors, and removing the omnipresent mud.  When the buildings are sort of empty and clean, it´s time to chip off the plaster from the walls and the screed from the floor, to let the buildings dry.  There are also outdoor jobs.  In the vineyards, the winegrowers are looking forward for support with the harvest.  And in the wineries, shelves of flooded and muddy wine bottles wait to be cleaned.  The wine, after all, is still very good.

The best time to arrive at the volunteer camp is around half past eight in the morning.  The first buses won’t leave until 9 a.m., so there’s still time for a cup of coffee with your Ahr valley buddies from last time and for getting hold of an assignment you like.  Mike, for example, prefers to chip off plaster from walls.  Demolition work is a job where you can’t do much wrong.  Besides, his Ahr valley buddy Wolfgang gave him a very motivating tip: “Why don’t you buy a good demolition hammer yourself.  Sooner or later, you’ll need one and you want to have one anyway” was his advice.  And that’s what Mike did.  But before he did so, he briefly asked Mecki.  “You know, I think of buying myself a demolition hammer.  For humanitarian reasons, to help the people in the Ahr valley”, is what he said to Mecki because invoking some higher cause is what he always does when something is really important to him.  “If it makes you happy”, replies Mecki, because that’s what she always answers when she thinks that her husband should struggle less with a buying decision.  And indeed, buying a demolition hammer did make Mike happy.  What a great tool his new Makita rotary hammer is: with a power output of 780 W it delivers 2.4 Joules of impact energy, enough to remove the stickiest of plaster from any wall, and also enough to drill holes up to 1 inch in diameter into solid concrete.  If there were a need to do so, which Mike hasn’t bothered to find out yet.  For now, having this machine is just more important than needing it.

The most important people in the volunteer camp, particularly in the morning, are those who distribute the work assignments.  They are referred to as scouts and wear high visibility vests.  The thing to do is to hook up with others – on most days you’ll have made plans to meet with your Ahr valley buddies from last time anyway – and then approach a scout.  What Mike found out is that asking the scout for a chipping assignment while holding his new Makita rotary hammer caringly in his arms, gives him the best chances to actually get such a job.  After 9 a.m., the shuttle buses leave for to the valley, where both a lot of work and many new acquaintances are waiting.  Acquaintances with people from all over the country.  Mike’s Ahr valley buddies for example come from as far away as Passau, Ingelheim, Bad Homburg, Stralsund, Saarbrücken, Pinneberg, Hannover, Sechtem, Kiel or Dresden.

There’s endless work to be done in the valley, but the breaks are important, too.  There’s a sociable break with a hot meal provided by the Red Cross for lunch, and usually it’s also fine to take a short break every now and then to get a picture of both the destructions and the cleanup efforts in the neighbourhood.  After a few hours of work, you’ll be dirty enough to be completely unsuspicious of voyeurism.  These 15 minutes walks around the neighbourhood are a time well spent.  In Rech, for example, Mike takes a look into the St.-Luzia-church that has been turned into a makeshift grocery store and an emergency post office, and he quickly criss-crosses the Ahr on a pontoon bridge installed by army engineers, in Walporzheim he looks over the blacksmith’s shoulder who repairs broken tools, mostly chisels, and in Altenahr he checks out the destroyed Ahr bridges.

Back at the volunteer camp in the evening, it’s time to get something to eat, a well-deserved beer, and to exchange the stories of the day.  All of that is important.  Everyone is hungry and thirsty, and sharing the experiences of the day is usually both interesting and entertaining.  Talking about the experiences in a disaster zone is also widely supposed to be helpful in coping with these very experiences, which, luckily, turns our to be easier than expected.  For it is not only images of destruction that you take home from the valley but also many very touching experiences.

First of all, there are the other volunteers who, although total strangers, are all likeable in at least two ways:  They are strongly affected by the adverse fate of the Ahr valley, and they passionately commit themselves to the – sometimes utterly filthy – tasks.

Take, for example, the two guys from Lichtenfels in Bavaria who drove a van full of beer and radler (a mixture of beer and soda) and a trailer full of Christmas presents all across the country.  When they finally reached the Ahr valley in Fuchshofen, they stopped at the first reconstruction site and asked for the mayor to distribute all the goodies among his people.  When a mayor was nowhere to be found, in fact Fuchshofen is too small a village to have one, they left two cases of beer and 15 stylishly wrapped Christmas presents with the coach of the local little league soccer team, the beer to be shared with his fellow coaches, and the presents to be forwarded to his team.  And off they drove to the next village, hoping to find someone – mayor, little league coach, who cares –  to help them cheer up more adults and kids with their precious load.

Or take the Yazidi community of Cologne, many of whom came to Germany only recently as refugees.  Since the flood, they regularly meet on Saturdays to cook dinner and treat the volunteer camp to Yazidi delicacies.

Or take the ice cream guy who came with his truck one October morning – the same day that the Federal President visited the volunteer camp – from two hours further South to treat the camp to ice cream, just to return empty handed with all his ice cream gone and not a single cent in the cash box.

Or take Katharina who met Tom somewhere between chipped off screed and plaster, and now the two set off together into the valley.  “Kind of sweet”, thinks Mike as he watches Katharina and Tom walking ahead of him, carrying their demolition hammers – Katharina Mike’s new Makita, Tom his Bosch-blue – with one hand while holding hands with the other.  Looks like this time, Mike has to spend the day without his favourite new toy.

There are endless stories to be shared in the evening.  And when returning back home afterwards, it somehow feels strange to be inspired from a trip to a disaster zone of all places.  It’s difficult to explain but maybe only normal with so much still going on in the valley.

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