Deluge victim drowns his sorrows: Germany launches its big clean-up as tide turns in the 'flood of the century'

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The Independent Online
WILFRIED Lommatzsch thought that he had given himself a nice Christmas present: a pub on the Fischmarkt square, in the heart of the Old Town in Cologne. But the British-born Mr Lommatzsch, who settled in Germany in 1990, has little reason to celebrate his new acquisition. 'I spent Christmas drowning my sorrows. What else could I do?'

Yesterday, Mr Lommatzsch gazed ruefully at the wreckage left by the 'flood of the century', as the Christmas catastrophe is being described. He took over the pub on 20 December. Now, Mr Lommatzsch reckons to have lost tens of thousands of pounds, as a result of the flood damage, when the Rhine burst its banks last week. For some, the bill may be even higher.

Yesterday, water poured across the cobbled streets as hoses drained all the cellars. Many streets were cordoned off; police have repeatedly complained of 'catastrophe tourism' making it difficult for them and the fire brigade to work. In Cologne alone, 6,000 people have been involved in the rescue and clean-up operation, with teams working round the clock, through the Christmas period. More than 100,000 people were affected by the floods: thousands of families either had to be evacuated, or were cut off, without electricity or telephones.

The floods are described as being the worst since 1748.

In Cologne's fish market and along nearby streets, the tide-marks left by the receding floods are above head height - worse than most dreamed of. Thus, Jakob Wallau, owner of an antiques shop on the Fischmarkt, removed pieces of furniture before the floods, 'just in case'; but he confidently left paintings high on the wall, which were also flood-damaged. Marcus Buschmann, who runs a well- known jazz pub in the centre of Cologne, removed electronic equipment from the bar; but he left the now-ruined piano on the raised stage, assuming that the floodwaters would never rise so far.

German officials say that the total bill may run to hundreds of millions of pounds. Meanwhile, there is a sense of urgency about the need to clear the streets of the slime left behind, before the task becomes impossible. In the words of one official, 'If the mud dries, you can only get rid of it with a pneumatic drill.' There have been problems with flooded oil-tanks in cellars, too.

In Koblenz, south of Bonn, where flood damage has also been severe, oil had to be pumped out of 50 cellars. Elsewhere, remedial action was impossible, and oil has seeped into the Rhine.

The floodwaters are gradually receding. Yesterday, a tunnel close to the Rhine in Cologne was re- opened, and the 'Big Clean-Up', as the headlines have dubbed it, is under way. But not all the dangers are over. The ground-water level has continued to rise, and there were warnings yesterday that cellars might still flood. In Cologne, officials expressed incomprehension when it was discovered that hoaxers had taken hoses, which were being used to drain flooded cellars, and diverted them into other, still-dry cellars.

In Bonn, meanwhile, parts of the government district were still cordoned off yesterday because of the floods. There was a thick coating of mud on the ground just below the federal parliament, the Bundestag; the Rhine was spilling over on to the road.

(Photograph omitted)