The flood of the century

The flood of the century


It was to go down in the history books as the worst flood of the century, 7 countries in Central Europe were affected by it, but the region around Passau in Bavaria, Germany was affected most severely by the torrential rainfall.

On the way back from a production in Munich I was leaving the city heading east when I heard on the radio about the rapidly rising water levels in the city of Passau, which is situated just under 100 km away from the direction I was travelling in. I decided on the spot to get a picture of what was happening there on location without realising what was to await me…

Once I arrived in Passau I first of all tried to find my way up to the higher situated Veste Oberhaus, where you get a view over the whole city. Once up there, I was rendered speechless by the proportions that the flood had already reached… the water had already risen as far as the first floor in many areas, the town hall in the old town looked like a floating boat house and the large piers where the ships usually docked were completely under water… and the peak had supposedly not been reached yet.

I immediately set off into the city to get a deeper insight. Not without risk, it turned out later, I was the last person to still be able to enter the city by car, the fire brigade closed the roads just behind me. I parked my car at the main train station first, as it was a few metres higher than the current water level.

Now, slightly unsure about whether it was fitting to take photographs in this chaos, I first of all walked towards the scene of the horror with a camera and 50 mm lens. I was only able to take a few photos before I realised how quickly the wet wall of death was rushing towards the city. It took no less than 15 minutes for a vehicle that was just standing in a puddle in a car park to start with to be completely submerged by the water. The THW aid workers tried to rescue the car but quickly realised that there was no point and it was more important to protect the houses. It was at this point at the latest that I could no longer reconcile the idea with myself of standing by doing nothing and documenting it all.

Even though in my role as photographer I was perhaps responsible for capturing this once in a lifetime event, I was too humane and concerned about the speed and ultimately massive danger that was rushing towards the residents. As a result, I decided to put my camera aside without further ado and get stuck in and help the THW aid workers. We carted sandbags for more than two hours and helped residents to escape or find a safe place. Some of them were trapped so quickly by the water that they had to be rescued from their houses with lifeboats. And regardless of how many of these sandbags we carted there were never enough and we couldn’t work quickly enough to stop the masses of water.

In the end, we realised just one thing, rescue anyone you can… and that was also the point in time when I first started to worry about my own situation. I rapidly set off back to my car where I established that I was almost completely trapped by water. The access roads to the train station were already flooded by the Danube and so the only route left for me to get out of the city was through a pedestrian area.

The real scale of this natural disaster only became truly visible the day after, after dawn when the water receded.

For more photos after the flood see Après le grand déluge.