The Bavarian city of Passau, about 200 kilometres east of Munich, has been called Germany’s Venice. It floats like a battleship, with church towers as funnels, at the confluence of one mighty river, the Danube, and two lesser ones, the Inn and the Ilz. The city is famous for its baroque and Gothic architecture; its star attraction, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, is home to Europe’s biggest pipe organ.
It is also famous for its floods.
They happen every few decades or so, turning public squares and narrow, cobblestone streets into canals. So the rains that began at the end of May seemed routine, certainly no equal to Passau’s worst flood in memory, dating to 1954, when the Danube swelled to a depth of 12.2 metres.
But the rains proved incessant and Passau’s three rivers kept rising mercilessly. By the morning of Sunday, June 2, it was obvious that the city of 50,000 was in trouble; anyone with a street-level shop, restaurant or office scrambled back to the old town to do what they could to minimize the inevitable damage.
Martin Kronawitter bolted to the Passau offices of Caritas, a Catholic aid agency, at 9 that morning. The agency is housed in a century-old, three-storey building that faces the Danube. When Kronawitter arrived, the water had already risen over the river embankment and had flowed into the parking lot and two-lane road that separates Caritas from the embankment. Wearing boots, Kronawitter sloshed his way to the front door. The 44-year-old caregiver’s mission was to retrieve paperwork and the keys of the patients whom its staff treats in their homes. “On the Saturday, it was raining but everything looked as usual,” he says. “But on Sunday morning, the river came up very, very fast.”
Kronawitter shifted records from the lower to the upper floor. The water kept rising. By the early afternoon, the main floor was submerged and he realized that leaving by the front door would be suicidal. “So I hopped out the back window,” he says. “We’ve never seen water so high.”
Over the next few days, Passau was a crisis zone. Plying what used to be streets in their inflatable boats, soldiers rescued residents from upper floors. Drinking water and electricity were cut off. Debris floated everywhere and light poles were submerged. When the water receded, the streets were buried in mud. Wrecked furniture, yanked out of shops and offices, made the city look like a war zone. The Caritas building was inaccessible for five days.
The Danube peaked at 12.8 metres, making it worse than not just the 1954 inundation, but the worst flood since 1501.
Passau was just one of many cities in Germany and Eastern Europe to get hit with record or near-record flooding that month. Munich Re, the German giant of reinsurance—the business of insuring the policies of insurers—put the damage from the June floods at €12 billion. It was estimated that insurance covered only about €3 billion of that amount, meaning a lot of people were out a lot of money. Munich Re’s primary insurance arm, ERGO, alone paid €83 million in claims to German flood victims—twice as much as for the last big flood, which was in 2002.
Less than three weeks after the European inundation, Calgary and other parts of Alberta got hit with the worst floods in the province’s history. About 100,000 people were displaced and five were killed. Damages were estimated to be as high as $6 billion (Canadian), of which $1.7 billion was insured, making it either Canada’s costliest or second-costliest natural disaster—the final claims tally was still being calculated in the early autumn. The Alberta floods were brutally expensive for homeowners because “overland” flood insurance is not available in Canada, though some relief came from the federal government’s Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements.
In September, three months after the German floods, the Caritas building in Passau, which is owned by the Catholic church, was still a wreck, the ground floor and walls all but destroyed. “They want to tear down the building,” Kronawitter says. “The damage is greater than the value of the building.”
In the aftermath of the German and Canadian floods, the victims, the insurers, the media, the politicians and the scientists were all asking the same questions: What caused them? Was it the relentless buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide? Could “extreme” weather events become the new normal or were they once-a-millennium acts of god?
In Munich Re’s offices, there wasn’t much debate as the claims cheques flew out the door: The higher frequency of extreme weather events is influenced by climate change; and recent climate change is largely due to burning hydrocarbons. “I’m quite convinced that most climate change is caused by human activity,” says Peter Höppe, head of geo-risks research at Munich Re.