Every minute, 12,000 liters of water are pumped from a flooded underground car park, under the worried gaze of firefighters. It is not the water that worries them, but the fear of what they might find there.
Firefighters believe there could be 50 cars on the ground floor, two floors underground. And, as the flood waters rushed at the end of last week, residents say they saw many drivers entering the parking lot in an attempt to save their vehicles. But they say they saw very few people come out.
In addition, at one point, a fire shutter fell – probably due to an electrical fault – sealing the ground floor.
Holger Quint is the deputy commander overseeing the operation. He told me there was “no chance” that anyone would survive being caught in the parking lot.
“We expect to find people who have died,” he said. “Maybe,” he pauses. “Maybe a lot. “
It is, he says, a unique challenge for him and the firefighters around him. Many of them are young, trained and experienced with fires, but not used to this kind of hidden trauma. Advice has already been offered to them.
Germany is shocked, with Belgium, the other nation hit by deadly floods.
But this was not nationwide violence – the flooding affected a few areas and left most of the country untouched. Nonetheless, those who were caught were devastated.
To walk in Ahrweiler is to experience the fierce and capricious power of nature.
Cars are all over the place – broken and dirty. Some ended up in people’s gardens. I saw a car stuck in a tree.
The historic city center is now dominated by a line of winding debris, stacked six feet high, outside every store and bar.
It feels like walking through the pastiche of a World War I trench – thick, creepy mud under your feet and dirty walls on either side of you.
And, perhaps, also a certain sense of that camaraderie.
We met a soldier who had come to town on a vacation day, accompanied by his daughter and girlfriend, and who had simply volunteered to help anyone who needed it.
There are plenty who do. As we passed an apartment, Andy threw its dirty contents out the window.
Her mother lives there – she is 80 years old – her husband is hospitalized and her insurance company has told her that she is not covered in the event of a natural disaster.
“She’s got nothing now,” Andy said. “Nothing except his cat. “
We continue on our way, passing holes in the road and along the river that has caused all this chaos, but now flows as usual, benign and well in its banks.
In the ruined garden of a house overlooking the river is Lieselotte Giffels who has lived here for six decades.
She shows me the plates she received as a wedding present, half a century old but now broken, and reveals that one of her neighbors has drowned.
And yet, she is determined not to be intimidated by what happened.
No, she won’t leave this house, she said. It’s a good house, she has lived there for a long time and she will continue to live here. She can even smile.
This is the kind of resilience this region needs. But resilience is a long-term project.
The scars from these floods will last a long time and repairs will surely cost billions.
There is still more pain to come. Back in town, the parking lot pump is still working and the firefighters are waiting for the moment when they can safely discover what awaits them two floors below.