This paper assesses the lessons to learn after the heavy rain and pluvial floods in Germany 2021 and addresses the question of failure. Floods are a known natural hazard in Germany, but the amount of precipitation and ensuing high death toll and damages after the events especially from 14 to 15 July 2021 came as a surprise. Almost immediately questions about failure in the early warning chains and the effectiveness of the German response emerged, also internationally. This article presents lessons to learn and argues against a blame culture.
The findings are based on comparisons with findings from previous research projects carried out in the Rhein-Erft Kreis and the city of Cologne, as well as on discussions with operational relief forces after the 2021 events. The main disaster aspects of the 2021 flood are related to issuing and understanding warnings, a lack of information and data exchange, unfolding upon a situation of an ongoing pandemic and aggravated further by critical infrastructure failure. Increasing frequencies of flash floods and other extremes due to climate change are just one side of the transformation and challenge, Germany and neighbouring countries are facing. The vulnerability paradox also heavily contributes to it; German society became increasingly vulnerable to failure due to an increased dependency on its infrastructure and emergency system, and the ensuing expectations of the public for a perfect system.