One year after the 2013 floods: Post-oil recovery in Deggendorf, Germany


By Mark Kammerbauer

The 2013 European Floods submerged many riverine regions in southern and eastern Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. The Fischerdorf and Natternberg neighborhoods of the Bavarian city of Deggendorf along the Danube river were flooded after two levees within the region breached. These communities faced an additional danger in the form of spilled heating oil that merged with the floodwater. Due to the location of these settlements within a low-lying area and the duration of the flooding, oil could penetrate deeply into construction materials. A situation emerged where quick recovery efforts with the help of volunteers proved counterproductive due to the degree of contamination. The initial rebuilding efforts neither resulted in the reduction of disaster risk nor of the vulnerability of the impacted population. In follow, and based on legal provisions and programs for rebuilding in Germany, local stakeholders were capable of addressing disaster risk and enabling mitigative and adaptive measures.

It is important not only for emergency managers, but also for architects, urban designers and planners to understand that the term "natural disaster" is misleading. According to concepts of disaster used within the research community, a particular hazard, which may be of natural or technological origin, combined with the social vulnerability of the impacted population leads to disaster. Such situations are also influenced by building and construction, the circumstances of dwelling, and the contributions of architects, urban designers, and planners to the built environment. On the other hand, the observation of the physical rebuilding process alone is insufficient to understand why individuals don't return and rebuild their homes after disaster or why they run into difficulties within the rebuilding of homes they either own or rent. And, while recovery should enable people to quickly return to their everyday lives, it should also lead to a reduction of vulnerability.

In the case of Deggendorf, the regional flood protection system failed as a levee breached and floodwater from the Isar river entered the polder-like landscape. Fischerdorf and Natternberg were submerged in floodwater of up to 2 m height above street level. The situation was reminiscent of the "safe development paradox", where protective systems actually increase risk for the inhabitants of the areas supposedly under protection. A famous example for this is New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps comparably to the Special US Congressional Appropriation passed for rebuilding in that case, the German Federal Government provided a funding package for the impacted regions. This package included financial grants to cover up to 80 percent of costs that uninsured, individual homeowners required for their recovery. The grants are supervised by the Federal States and managed by the regional District Administration Offices, which are responsible for local emergency management efforts.

In Fischerdorf and Natternberg, the situation became exceptionally dire. The floodwaters merged with spilled heating oil. This "toxic gumbo" remained in place until eleven days after the levee breach, and the oil-water mix had plenty of time to deeply intrude into the buildings and their construction materials. The typical houses of the region are built in brick covered in render and plaster and feature wood frame roofs covered with roofing tiles. Particularly cinderblock as cheap construction material was used in the post-WW II era. The initiative to rebuild quickly was palpable as voluntary helpers, many of them students from the local School of Applied Sciences, were organized via social media. In many cases, they removed plaster layers from buildings up to the first floor both on the inside and the outside. Some homeowners had also quickly begun to renovate their houses. But then these odd, ugly spots emerged through the new render layers: oil had penetrated the brick- and blockwork deeply and now seeped to the surface again.

You could see it, you could smell it: the oil was still there. This is when homeowners called for qualified advice from professional experts. In many cases, the expert surveys indicated that contamination was so significant that renovation would exceed the costs for complete demolition and new construction. The resulting image that the neighborhoods currently offer is very heterogeneous. Houses are vacant, some were demolished, some are in disrepair, some are being rehabilitated, and there is new construction. Heating oil may have spilled in one's own home and caused contamination. Someone who didn't use heating oil as energy source may still have been affected by the oil spill from a neighbor's tank. Others had secured their tanks above ground level - but decided to switch to natural gas after the disaster as a precaution.

The local County Commissioner's Office set up a task force to deal with the recovery on a case-by-case basis. From funding application to new construction, they coordinate their work with the city's building department. Importantly: changes to buildings are encouraged. While new construction should match the previous contaminated houses in size and function, homeowners can alter and adapt their new homes. By doing so, they prepare for potential future flood events by avoiding the construction of basements, raising technical building equipment to ground or upper floors, and locating bedrooms on upper floors of their homes. Another very important fact is that voluntary helpers support impacted residents to this day. For instance, they ensure that communication between funding applicants and responsible institutions is quick.

At the same time, the local flood management system was repaired and improved. Plans for creating retention areas and polders to support flood risk management along the Danube river are under discussion. However, a vulnerability-based perspective is not yet sufficiently present within official documents. People may be affected by disaster to differing degrees, and this is where vulnerability becomes relevant: how do senior citizens experience the disaster? What do renters do while they wait for their landlords to decide whether to rebuild or not? How do residents who belong to ethnic minorities who may not be used to interacting effectively with institutions deal with the situation? What if your health condition deteriorated because of the disaster?

It may still be too early for a conclusion on the recovery of the Deggendorf neighborhoods. Nevertheless, this case offers important insight in terms of applied disaster risk reduction. Specifically architects, urban designers and planners bear a responsibility in this regard. The recovery process after disaster is immanently socio-spatial and indicates the deep interrelations between the built environment, households and their dwelling circumstances, and institutions that may (or may not) be in place to support them after disaster. And, in the words of a resident: "it will happen again, and it will happen again here."Related interdisciplinary perspectives can help the planning and design community to discuss and develop just and sustainable paradigms of rebuilding after disaster that enable reduction of disaster risk and adaptation to future disasters.

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