The full devastation wreaked by Germany’s cataclysmic floods has emerged slowly. As the waters subside, survivors have cautiously waded back through the mud and rubble to salvage what is left of their communities. Last week an unusual zone of low pressure trapped between two areas of high pressure meant that two months’ rain fell in 48 hours. The Ahr, Erft, Swist, Trierbach and Volme, usually less than a metre deep as they wind through small towns and villages on their way to the Rhine, were transformed into fierce and destructive torrents.
Yunarso lives in a small kampung, or informal settlement, in West Jakarta. It was one of the worst-affected areas, with over a metre of floodwater inundating the houses. ‘Did we prepare for this?’ the 36-year-old said. ‘No, nothing. We were celebrating New Year’s Eve until it was late. Then we laid our heads down for a moment and in the morning the water was everywhere.’
The siren sounded at four o’clock in the afternoon: an ascending four-note melody in a minor key spread across the city, warning of an imminent flood of more than 140 cm. The Rialto became a stampede of umbrellas and barging limbs. An hour later, the water started to seep through the door of my ground-floor flat. The barricade provided by the landlord was breaching grey liquid. My partner threw down newspaper in the entrance hall to block the leak. I was stationed in the bathroom, tasked with bailing out the toilet bowl and shower, both filling up with the dirty, salty fluid. I ladled the stuff out the window with a kitchen pot. At last, after a couple of hours, the water level began to drop. I wandered out into the dark street, the lagoon still brushing against my knees, and prepared for another week of it.
Southern Spain has suffered a catastrophic storm that will have repercussions for years to come. As I write there are seven people dead who were caught in flash floods. Several hundred have been rescued. Some were given temporary shelter in sports centres. A special army unit was on stand-by and the prime minister has visited some of the worst affected spots. About 1500 farm animals died in the region of Murcia. The sea spat out a thousand dead tuna from a fish farm, and beaches on La Manga had to be closed till the rotting corpses were removed. They had already left an oily film on the sea.
Before the cyclone, there was a drought in Zimbabwe. People prayed for rain; and then the rain came, and it was not at all what was wished for. It seems brutally unfair: to have lost so much, in so brief a time, at the ordinance of the sky.
For several days now, the Seine has been drawing a crowd. The international press, tourists and Parisians have come to look at the river because it is uncharacteristically high. Before I had seen it myself, I assumed the reason for all the curiosity was novelty. We’ve been told that the chances of the river breaking its banks are extremely low, but Paris can so easily be mistaken for a city frozen in time that changes in its landscape, even temporary ones, ask to be witnessed. Setting eyes on the engorged river, though, mud brown and churning viciously around the bare branches of its towpath trees, stirred in me an unease I had not expected: that one day, though probably not today, the Seine may begin rising like this, and not stop. And it reminded me that Parisians have long harboured a fear of their city ending up underwater.
Ten years ago, Tewkesbury Abbey was surrounded by muddy brown flood waters. Following the wettest June on record, in which tens of thousands of buildings were flooded, from Scotland to the Midlands, an extreme weather event hit the Cotswolds on 20 July 2007. The region was already saturated, drains were overflowing and run-offs ineffective. At the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon, Tewkesbury was swamped. Within hours it was completely cut off. The flood waters breached the Mythe waterworks, depriving 350,000 people of running water.
In ‘Stubbing Wharfe’, a poem from Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes writes about sitting with Sylvia Plath in a pub ‘Between the canal and the river’ in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire:
The average mid-life crisis ends in a red sports car, but mine landed in a caravan. I bought it during a fearful rainstorm 18 months ago and moved my fishing rod in the following day. There are two bottles of whisky here and a pot of soup on the hob; there’s a jar of pencils, an old typewriter, and a nice edition of The Mill on the Floss, which contains the best written account of a British flood that presently exists. As I write, and look out at the Clyde Firth, I fear that George Eliot’s coagulated waters might be about to overtop Ailsa Craig, the craggy rock in the middle of the sea that in my childhood was called Paddy’s Milestone.
Aira Force is hidden beneath a strip of thick deciduous woodland on the banks of Ullswater. The waterfall drops 70 feet from the beck above, forcing itself through a narrow opening in the limestone, framed above and below by two humpbacked footbridges. It was near this spot that William and Dorothy Wordsworth saw their crowd of golden daffodils. The waterfall itself features in a handful of his poems; in ‘The Somnambulist’, the ‘drooping Emma’, separated from her lover, Sir Eglamore, begins to sleepwalk, drawn by the mesmerising sound of the beck: The moon is not more pureThat shines aloft, while through the woodShe thrids her way, the sounding FloodHer melancholy lure! The modern idea of the Lake District derives from the Romantic poets. Before they reimagined it, most people had feared and avoided the landscape of what is now Cumbria. It wasn’t hard to see why last week, as I trod carefully across the slippery bridge at the top of the falls. Storm Eva had followed close behind Storm Desmond, bringing unprecedented rain.
I lost my watch in York last Tuesday, somewhere between the Shambles car park and Betty’s cafe on Davygate. It was raining, my two-year-old son ‘needed’ to be carried, my backpack was slipping off my shoulder, the streets were heaving with Christmas shoppers. It wasn’t until I was queuing for lunch and wondered what the time was that I realised my watch was missing. I retraced my steps but unsurprisingly didn’t find it. The odd glinting object in the gutter was only a half-eaten packet of mints or a condom wrapper. The watch was a 21st birthday present from my parents; I’d had it for nearly 18 years. Both keepers had fallen off the strap weeks ago, and I’d been meaning to replace them, but hadn’t got round to it because the watch stayed on my wrist OK without them, until it didn’t. Like much of the city centre, the Shambles car park 'is currently inaccessible due to the recent floods in York. All the cars that are currently parked in the car park remain safe and secure.' ‘Mr Cameron is facing a tide of public anger,’ the Yorkshire Postreported on Monday, ‘after it emerged that the government dug deep last December to finance a £300 million scheme to protect the Thames Valley after previously rejecting a £180 million scheme to safeguard 4500 homes in Leeds city centre, one of the areas worst affected by the Christmas deluge.’ The estimated cost of the floods is approaching £6 billion.
I had coffee with Sudbin, a human rights activist, in northern Bosnia last month. We met at a roadside bar called Sidro ('anchor') in the village of Carakovo, and talked about the difficulties facing Bosniaks who returned to Republika Srpska after the war. Heavy rain was falling. The River Sana was seeping over its banks. Dark brown water swirled around the wooden stilts that supported a two-storey house beside the river. 'I've never seen it like this,' Sudbin said. 'Nobody, not the government, has done anything to stop it, to make defences.'
From the terrace at Cliveden, with its western and southern panorama, the Thames and its floodplain are partly obscured by woodland, and so yesterday you couldn't judge the extent of the flooding in the valley below. But that didn't appear to matter to the large number of people visiting the house and its gardens, on the first gale-free day in some time, many of whom had turned out to see what they could of the floods. Disaster tourism?
From Daniel Defoe's The Storm: or, a Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters Which Happen'd in the Late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land (1704): We have reckoned, including the City of London, about 123 People kill'd; besides such as we have had no account of; the Number of People drowned are not easily Guest; but by all the Calculations I have made and seen made, we are within compass, if we reckon 8000 Men lost, including what were lost on the Coast of Holland, what in Ships blown away, and never heard of, and what were drowned in the Flood of the Severn, and in the River of Thames.
From the beginning of the last chapter of The Mill on the Floss: In the counties higher up the Floss, the rains had been continuous, and the completion of the harvest had been arrested. And now, for the last two days, the rains on this lower course of the river had been incessant, so that the old men had shaken their heads and talked of sixty years ago, when the same sort of weather, happening about the equinox, brought on the great floods, which swept the bridge away, and reduced the town to great misery.
The government blame game about the floods is in full spate. Eric Pickles is a penitent convert to dredging. ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong,’ H.L. Mencken said. The Somerset Levels have been flooding regularly since well before the Domesday Book. Pumping has been going on for almost 200 years. But once the media have got a grip, scapegoats must be found. I expect that a Public Inquiry will be announced soon, ostensibly ‘to get to the truth’ but really to kick everything into touch.
When that I was and a little tiny boy, or at any rate about 14 years old, I was deeply disconcerted by J.G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, set in a London submerged by the melting of the polar icecaps under a tropical swamp. Now I see it for the utopian dream it was – tropical? We should be so lucky. Hey ho, the wind and the rain.
You can hardly turn a corner in Passau without stepping into a church. The town has dozens of them, large and small, old and new, some of them empty, most of them full. This is, after all, deepest Bavaria, the heartland of German Catholicism. The last pope was born a few miles up river in the village of Marktl am Inn.
New York City is the greatest public works project in the USA. It is a city of tubes, grids, circuits and networks. We are organised by numbered floors and numbered streets and numbered apartments, fed and watered through great pipes and tunnels and bridges, shuttled to and fro in shifts along lines. On Monday night the magnificent machines were revealed to us, as they failed one by one.
Hurricane Sandy brought to New York much more wind than rain, and the greatest damage has been near the Atlantic Ocean, the Long Island Sound, and the two rivers. We all knew which neighbourhoods faced the most immediate danger – Battery Park, Red Hook, Rockaway – but it wasn’t until late last night, safe at home, that I realised the hurricane spelled trouble for most of the city’s art galleries, clustered together in Chelsea a block from the Hudson. I went down this morning. The water has receded (mostly – 21st Street was impassible today), but there’s still no power, and the damage is total. Every celebrity architect you can name has retrofitted one of these spaces, but they weren’t made to withstand this kind of onslaught. They’re low-slung warehouses, mostly, with garage doors at their entrances. The hurricane warped many of the doors; I saw a team of dealers trying to pry open a metal gate with a crowbar.