01. December 2021

After the Flood, the Army of Helpers The University of Bonn is supporting flood victims from its own ranks

The University of Bonn is supporting flood victims from its own ranks

Heavy rain triggered catastrophic flooding in large swathes of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia in mid-July, claiming lives and causing massive damage to property. At the University of Bonn, it soon became clear that members of the University were also in mortal danger and had lost their homes and possessions. Through the “WIR helfen” (“WE help”) campaign, the University management collected donations and provided relief with a minimum of red tape.

A destroyed bridge in the Ahr valley:
A destroyed bridge in the Ahr valley: - The flood swept away bridges, houses and roads © V. Lannert
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One Wednesday in July, everything changed for University employee Dieter Knieps and his neighbors in Ahrweiler: a wave of floodwater on an unprecedented scale flushed all sense of normality out of what was usually such a tranquil place. The water came at night, killing many people and animals, flooding houses and sweeping away belongings. It destroyed power lines, railways and roads.

Dieter Knieps is in charge of general building services and renovation in the Technical Services department, helping to meet the University’s growing need for space and maintain its existing premises. Back on July 14, he had no idea that he would soon have to refurbish his own home. An exceptional amount of rain had been forecast for that Wednesday, and it was “bucketing down.” The River Ahr began to swell quickly, and flooding was imminent.

Dieter Knieps says: “We see this kind of thing quite a lot. In the evening, I went down to the riverbank with my wife, my daughter and my dog to take a look. The Ahr was indeed very high, so we thought: we should probably put the laundry on top of the washing machine in the basement so that it doesn’t get wet.” On their way home, the trio are met by a fire engine. A loudspeaker issues a flood warning and tells people to stay away from underground garages. The Knieps family go to bed unperturbed – after all, they don’t have an underground garage.

 “The water’s coming! Get your cars out the way!”

During the night, they are woken up again. The neighbors are shouting: “The water’s coming! Get your cars out the way!” People in Ahrweiler have seen this before – back in 2016, the water level rose especially high. Dieter Knieps and his wife Simona think about how their neighbors can get their cars safe. A small, brown rivulet is flowing along the curb. Just a short time later, it has grown into a raging torrent. Then the power goes out.

Knieps parks his car at the other end of town – high enough up, as it later turns out. On the way back, his wife finds herself trapped by water along a parallel street. Says Knieps: “The father of a Kurdish family rescued my wife from the floods and brought her to safety on the third floor.” He himself seeks refuge at a friend’s house, because his route home is blocked by the sheer volume of water.

Staying in touch with his daughter

They use their cell phones to stay in touch with his 17-year-old daughter Ida, who has stayed at home with their dog Lotta. She tells a dramatic tale: the basement of their small house in front of Ahrweiler’s town walls is already full of water, which is now surging through the first floor. The water is still rising. “Those were a terrible few hours,” Knieps says. He has to force himself to relive the events of that night.

At 2:30 am, his daughter sends him a photo she took from the stairwell: just below the second floor, a wide brown strip can be seen on the wall. The water is receding! In the early hours of the morning, Knieps attempts to get back to his daughter. Twice he has to turn back and find a different way through because the water is simply too deep. Via a circuitous route, he finally gets home – where the water is up to his navel. And, at long last, he is able to hug his daughter. The two cry tears of joy, ignoring the destruction in the house and the mountain of rubble in the garden.

Special task force to prepare emergency assistance

Over the next few days, people in Bonn have a hard time finding out anything precise about the situation: in a broad swathe from the Eifel mountains to the River Erft, power lines are down and cell towers cut off. In the media, an increasing number of pictures of destroyed towns and villages are running on a loop.

Back at the University, meanwhile, Facility Management sounds the “all clear”: the University’s buildings had emerged unscathed from the storm. However, the University management is concerned about the members of the University whose homes had been damaged by the flooding.

The Rectorate building in Argelanderstraße is receiving a growing stream of updates about the people who have been affected. The Rector, Prof. Michael Hoch, and the Provost, Holger Gottschalk, decide to convene a special task force to prepare emergency assistance.

Aid packages and pressure washers 

First, a mass email is sent out, asking all members of the University who had been affected by the flooding to report to the Rectorate. The University management is keen to get an idea of what help is required. At the same time, work begins on putting together an aid package of unprecedented proportions: those affected and the people helping them are to be given special leave – specifically, more than the five days specified in law. Loans are to be provided in the form of a salary advance.

The Rectorate also mobilizes all the forms of support at its disposal, such as lending out equipment like dehumidifiers and pressure washers to repair flood damage. An online platform is set up to match helpers with people in need. An emergency childcare service is also organized, as is psychological counseling, while university apartments are put into service as temporary emergency accommodation.

In addition, the University launches an appeal for donations at the initiative of Professor Hoch. Christened “WIR helfen” (“WE help”), it allows University staff to have donations deducted straight from their salary.

The Rector’s call does not fall on deaf ears: nearly €60,000 is raised in just a few days. The sum is to be distributed as quickly and fairly as possible to those affected to give them immediate assistance following guidelines approved by the Rectorate. Rector Hoch says: “I’m delighted by the solidarity and willingness to help that this is demonstrating. We’re incredibly grateful to everyone who’s donated. Their generosity and the huge personal commitment of the many helpers are truly impressive.”

Each line represents one person’s fate.

A total of 180 University members who had suffered damage as a result of the flood – 79 students and 101 members of staff – answer the appeal to make themselves known. The Central Study Advisory and Counseling Service and the Human Resources division draw up spreadsheets in an attempt to put the unfathomable down in black and white.

Each line represents one person’s fate. “Basement apartment destroyed,” says one; “Home uninhabitable,” says another. One person has lost a close relative. Many students say they won’t be able to sit their exams, need financial support or want to take up the offer of psychosocial counseling. A team of administrators look into every report, note down what people need and put them in touch with contacts who can help them further.

Help is on its way

Dieter Knieps is among those who respond to the Rectorate’s call. “Dear Mr. Gottschalk,” he writes to the Provost a few days after the disaster. “Unfortunately, I’m at my wits’ end. Here at my house in Ahrweiler, everything is destroyed.” First of all, he needs some time to repair the worst of the flood damage. Eventually, administrators tell him (as they do all staff hit hard by the flood) that he will receive 20 days’ special leave – on full pay, of course.

And Knieps has not been left on his own: more and more helping hands find their way to his half-destroyed house. “First there were two helpers, then four, and in the end I had nearly 40 volunteers lending a hand,” Knieps recalls. They included University colleagues and some of his daughter’s schoolmates. The helpers form a chain of buckets to clear the basement of thick mud and then carry the Knieps’s ruined belongings outside onto the street.

And suddenly some more familiar faces appear in the doorframe: Staff from central administration have come to assist, carrying fresh water and cleaning equipment. Among them is Thomas Bongart, who is in charge of removals in Section 4.1. “For me, it was immediately clear that I had to help. With the blessing of our managers, we then got right to it,” he says.

Their first stop was the mud-encrusted yard of an high school in Sinzig. “Armed with a street sweeper and pressure washers, we made the schoolyard usable again.” A day later, Bongart and his colleagues are outside Dieter Knieps’s house in Ahrweiler bearing nearly 800 gallons (3,000 liters) of water for cleaning. Bongart explains: “We simply worked our way up the River Ahr, from colleague to colleague.” At the same time, more teams of University staff have been released from their duties and are on their way to help other colleagues.

Slowly getting back to normal

Some weeks have passed since these days of high drama. Dieter Knieps is back at work, dividing his days between Bonn and working from home in Ahrweiler. The most visible traces of the flood are gradually being removed. The mountain of rubble has disappeared from the garden, and the street is now passable once again. And yet Knieps still sees a lot of destruction on his walks round the block with Lotta the poodle. The pair stomp through ruined houses to the near riverbank, where the impact of the flood is still unmistakable. The Technisches Hilfswerk (THW) civil protection organization has built a makeshift pedestrian bridge over the river, which Knieps’s daughter uses every day to get to school.

The steel remains of the old bridge still lie on the opposite bank, bent like blades of straw. At the Ahrtor gate, mounds of debris are still being removed, while the THW is building a temporary car bridge next door. Every few minutes, Knieps bumps into people he knows. They say hello and exchange a few words. “The community has grown even closer since the flood,” Knieps says. “We look out for each other and help one another wherever we can.” And, without question: “People’s readiness to help and their compassion, especially among those from the University, have been completely overwhelming!”

A slice of the “new normal” has also returned to the Knieps household: the family have now made themselves comfortable on their undamaged second floor. The power and water are back on (“Hot showers again – fantastic!”). Although the first floor is still very much sporting a bare brickwork look, it already has a makeshift floor for storing things on. And there is even a heater, which can be powered by gas cylinders on a temporary basis. The father, his wife and his daughter gather on their balcony every evening to eat together, Knieps says. “Then we listen to music – sometimes ours, sometimes my daughter’s.” And, just for a moment, they forget about the challenges that the catastrophe has left behind all around them.


We visited Dieter Knieps in September.
We visited Dieter Knieps in September. - He guided us through Ahrweiler. © V. Lannert
Cars, roads and infrastructure were swept away by the Ahr river
Cars, roads and infrastructure were swept away by the Ahr river - The Ahr, otherwise an inconspicuous little river: Due to the heavy rain it turned into a raging torrent © V. Lannert
We visited Dieter Knieps in September. He guided us through Ahrweiler.
We visited Dieter Knieps in September. He guided us through Ahrweiler. - With us was dog Lotta. © V. Lannert
We visited Dieter Knieps in September. He guided us through Ahrweiler.
We visited Dieter Knieps in September. He guided us through Ahrweiler. - Between debris and ruins: With dog Lotta, Knieps leads us through the barely recognizable streets and gardens of Ahrweiler © V. Lannert
This is what it looked like upon arrival: Helpers from the university come by.
This is what it looked like upon arrival: Helpers from the university come by. - First there were two helpers, then four, and in the end almost 40 volunteers who lent a hand," says Knieps. Among them were colleagues from the university and school friends of the daughter. With a bucket brigade, the helpers transport the tough mud from the cellar to the outside. Then the destroyed household goods are carried to the street. © Dieter Knieps
Things are progressing.
Things are progressing. - The first floor of the house looks like gutted. Doors and floors were removed © V. Lannert
The first delivery:
The first delivery: - "We" is written on the orange bus of the Universtiy of Bonn. Suddenly, more familiar faces appear in the doorway: Employees of the university administration have set out with fresh water and cleaning equipment to help. © Dieter Knieps
On the second day of action:
On the second day of action: - One day later, Bongart and his colleagues are in Ahrweiler with Dieter Knieps. In their luggage: 3,000 liters of service water. Bongart says, "We simply worked our way up the Ahr, from colleague to colleague." At the same time, other university teams on leave are also on the move in the flooded areas to help other employees. © V. Lannert
Mud, mud everywhere.
Mud, mud everywhere. - When it dries, it is almost impossible to remove: the mud that has settled everywhere in the apartment. With shovels and buckets, the helpers try to get to grips with the dirt. © Knieps
Clothing: Soiled by dirt that it stands almost by itself
Clothing: Soiled by dirt that it stands almost by itself © Knieps
Many thanks for your help
Many thanks for your help © V. Lannert
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