Spontaneous disaster relief: Folks, do come around and help out!


We really are awestruck that some of our colleagues have already – and still are – helping out with the rescue and cleaning up missions underway in the disaster areas hit by the heavy rains and floods not too far from Bonn. Since even more colleagues have been applying for leave to also help out, our senior management promptly decided to support this commendable initiative by granting anybody willing to help an extra day of leave – or more, if needed. In so doing, we as a company hope that our small contribution to the emergency operations will also inspire other local companies to follow suit.

Here is what our colleague Miriam experienced when she volunteered to venture out to where it really hurts – to the towns struck directly by hitherto unknown water masses, where uncounted locals were left with nothing but the clothes on their bodies – if they were lucky. The death toll has risen to over 170. Completely solid, German houses were swept away, even small office buildings. Miriam’s concise recount of what she experienced that day when she helped out on site in the disaster-struck town of Altenburg is accompanied with little “parental warning”: Perhaps the following is not meant for the faint-hearted.

The situation on the ground

In the third week of July I was in Altenburg near Altenahr together with a group of firemen, emergency doctors and other rescue workers – all of them in their spare time, but well organised thanks to professional connections.

On the way there, we passed several stations and assembly points by the fire brigade, the police, the THW (Federal German agency for technical relief) and numerous other rescue teams stationed around the outer villages. The destruction there was already bad, but the further we moved in, the worse it got.

Then we drove into the village of Altenburg, our final destination. The scene was almost impossible to put into words. Rubble and broken household goods already carried out of the swamped houses piled up on the roadside. One could see cars lying on their roofs, even on top of each other, overturned caravans, things caught in tree tops.

But then the houses. Unfathomable. One inadvertently got stuck staring into other people’s private rooms, their living rooms, their bedrooms, all the rooms which were ripped open and left without any outer walls, because the floods had carried away the other half of the rooms, the houses as such. Some buildings simply no longer exist. But even those houses with standing walls look badly battered. Almost all of them have no windows or doors left.

What was not broken by the flood was now being demolished by the helpers so that the debris could be removed more easily from the houses. The dark rims at the top of the windows on the 2nd floors indicated how high the water had risen. The frequent red crosses sprayed onto the walls next to the main entrances signalled that an inhabitant of that house was still missing. A green tick next to it showed that the person has resurfaced. Supposedly, signs in black indicate if a resident was confirmed dead.

The mud was simply everywhere, some roads not even recognisable as such due to the mud. In some place it was so deep it reached up to my knees. Where it has dried up, you have to drive at walking speed because it gets so dusty. And the mud stinks, mostly like oil which was spilling from damaged tanks meant to power heating systems in winter. The oil was soaking into the walls, foundations and floors and left streaks everywhere. In other places, the stench is caused by dead fish, coming in all the way from the Rhine, I was told by the locals.

Many helpers

Really, the only comfort in this situation was knowing that no one was alone in this nightmare. Time and again, people passed by asking if they could help. Private cars drove around and handed out coffee. The police even brought pre-packaged food, and the aid centre a few streets down the road had portable toilets and water to wash one’s hands. Shovels, buckets and work gloves were being handed out.

One needs tons of working gloves; after 2 hours they are so full of mud that you have no choice but to replace them. I learned the trick that putting thin plastic gloves underneath the actual working gloves keeps the water out.

We are all toiling away for hours on end, covered in mud from head to toe. Then, eventually, finally, it was announced that the house was considered empty enough. It was getting late already, many of us had already reached their limits anyway. We all had a beer afterwards, trying our best to keep up the spirit with little jokes, grappling to make sense of something still so bewildering. Before we took off, we changed our clothes and got out of our boots, which still covered in mud were heavy as millstones.

Getting out of the village took ages. Of course, the navigation system refused to work, finding our way with so many roads closed seemed impossible at times; that none of us was even faintly familiar with the region didn’t help. When we finally hit the road, the many cars still lining the sides of the streets to and from Altenburg gave an indication of how many people were still helping inside the town.

My conclusion

So was the whole exercise worth the trouble? Or was it, in spite of the best intentions, just an exercise in futility? No, no worries, every helping is needed and put to use. At the same time, it was strange to realize how insignificant one’s own contribution was – simply by considering the enormous mass of work still to be completed. Our group was quite big, and we were able to keep up the work all day with at least 10 people at the same time, sometimes with even up to 20 in parallel. Still, we only managed to empty one single house of all the mud and broken household goods.

And all that work by so many people by no means made that house any more inviting than before we had arrived – it looked just as awful as before, the only difference being that the junk, that was someone’s much needed and loved belongings until just the other day, was now piling up in front instead of inside the house. Furthermore, now one could walk down the floors of the house without stinky mud up to your knees. But one’s sense of accomplishment is really marginal, not even close to being as satisfying as helping a friend move into a new apartment. And on top of your hands and back aching for days, on top of the of the excruciating muscle pain the following morning, the nasty pictures inside your head will not disappear anytime soon.

Still, even understanding fully well how tiny one’s own contribution is – in the end, progress boils down to all these mini-contributions adding up over time to something huge. Every hour, every hand, every tool counts and makes a difference. So, all you people, go out and help!

Important hints

  • Bring along enough water and food for yourself
  • A change of clothes (including shoes) and garbage bags to transport the dirty working clothes is definitely recommended.
  • Working trousers with pockets which securely hold your cell phone and keys are in your best interest!
  • Really helpful: Put the mobile phone in a plastic bag and close it so tight it becomes waterproof.
  • Underneath your working gloves wear lightweight latex gloves.
  • Take the tools you need, the shovels, crowbars or axes, with you, include if possible more than a single pair of work gloves with you; even if though it’s very likely some of your stuff will be lost forever.
  • Bring as many handkerchiefs, disinfectants and wet wipes as you can carry.

Last, but not least, and indeed very, very important: Don’t just spontaneously set off on your own personal mission! Instead, join an organised group under the guidance of professional helpers – only then it’s guaranteed that REALLY every hand makes a difference. Locate the relevant coordination offices in the region where you might want to help out and find out if where you can assist with the tasks at hand.

  • Author und photos: Miriam Dovermann