BERLIN – German prosecutors said Friday that they have launched a formal probe into whether two regional officials failed to properly warn residents ahead of last month's deadly floods.
Prosecutors in the western city of Koblenz said investigations so far had confirmed an “initial suspicion” of negligent homicide and negligent bodily harm against the regional administrator in nearby Ahrweiler county.
At least 141 people died, more than 700 were injured and 17 are still missing in the Ahr valley following the floods of July 14-15. Dozens more people died in other parts of western Germany and neighboring Belgium where heavy rainfall turned streams into raging rivers that swept away houses and caused massive economic damage.
A second member of the crisis management team, who was in charge of the emergency operation for at least part of the night, is also being investigated, prosecutors said.
Residents of the flood-hit towns reported receiving little advance warning of the deadly flood that would occur, with some claiming that information from authorities was unclear or entirely absent.
Koblenz prosecutor Harald Kruse said his office had reviewed the timeline of events on the night of the disaster and found that there had been a delay of several hours between the first reports of serious flooding higher up the valley and the official order to evacuate.
The village of Schuld was flooded at about 5 p.m., causing large-scale damage to buildings but no loss of life, Kruse told reporters at a news conference. However, the town of Sinzig — where the Ahr flows into the Rhine River — wasn't hit until 2:30 a.m., he said.
Authorities issued an evacuation warning for certain areas shortly after 11 p.m. While the warning was transmitted by at least one smartphone app, many people were not aware of it and there were only sporadic siren alerts in the valley.
Kruse said the investigation to date had focused on the death of twelve residents of an assisted-living facility in Sinzig. But he said that possible culpability for the deaths of other people that night would be included in the probe as more information becomes available.
At least eight bodies were found in a single underground parking lot, Kruse said. Some people had tried to drive their cars to safety on the advice of authorities only to drown when the floodwater rushed in.
“Every human life that was lost is one too many,” said Kruse.
The regional administrator for Ahrweiler, Juergen Pfoehler, has denied responsibility for the deaths and told prosecutors that he delegated responsibility for disaster management to another person, who is now also under investigation. Koehler declined to name the individual, citing privacy laws and the presumption of innocence.
Meanwhile, estimates of the disaster's economic cost continued to rise.
The economy minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Andreas Pinkwart, said the damage in his state alone is expected to run to between 15 billion and 20 billion euros ($17.7 billion to $23.6 billion).
Federal and state officials are meeting in Berlin on Tuesday to discuss financial aid for the flood-hit regions.