The first precise warning that Germany was about to be hit by a violent storm likely to unleash a potentially deadly flood reached the country’s Meteorological Service in the early hours of July 12, nearly three days before disaster struck.
It was Monday morning, and this government agency’s supercomputer, a machine the size of a hockey rink, had just generated a model forecast predicting with over 90% certainty and a precision down to 2 square kilometers that a string of West German communities would likely be befallen by severe flooding by late Wednesday.
The alarming forecast, which soon proved to be accurate, was picked up by the agency’s on-duty meteorologist who promptly triggered the country’s sophisticated flood alert system at 6 a.m., notifying at once the government, the emergency services, the police and key media about the looming catastrophe.
Some local authorities heeded the warning and alerted their populations, potentially saving lives, but many others failed to do so before the flash floods hit Germany last Wednesday, killing over 160 and seriously injuring nearly 1000 people. Officials say those numbers could increase as rescuers keep combing through destroyed homes.
In those places, an overreliance on digital tools such as warning apps meant to replace old-school sirens and public service announcements, the reluctance to order evacuations, and simply incredulity about the imminence of such a disaster were among the factors that stood in the way of a pre-emptive response, experts and officials said.