Where roadside trees and brushwood winding through the narrow valley would normally suggest a peaceful babbling brook, a wide swathe of devastation takes its place. At its edge, the broad embankment and ruined houses underline the destructive power of the water. The reconstruction is far from complete and will most likely take years.
The night of the flood was nine months ago. In between, there was a grape harvest, a winter, the odd Corona wave, and plenty of work for the flood-ravaged Ahr Valley. After the stunned shock gradually faded for all those unaffected in society, the media also became quieter about the situation on the Ahr. Other trouble spots became more prominent...
What has happened in the past few months?
The Ahr Looks Ahead: Pictures from Dernau
"Every 11 minutes, a helper falls in love with the Ahr Valley," is emblazoned on a house wall in Dernau. Well, ‘house’ wall is a relative term for this object situated directly on the B267 and only a few meters from the Ahr, which is no longer habitable. A few steps further stands the abandoned Kreuzberg winery, which had to move to Meckenheim, about 20 kilometers away. Across the street, lunch is served to residents and helpers from a tent. It is quiet - except when trucks loaded with heavy equipment or rubble rush past, raising clouds of dust. People watch them from folding chairs in front of broken houses, talking and laughing with each other.
Despite the harsh circumstances, many feel both optimism and gratitude. Criticism is voiced when it is meaningful and necessary. Cohesion is needed more than usual. The Dernau Helpers' Wall has become a symbol - for those who lend a hand, and for those who gratefully accept their help - for they certainly can still use it.
Together Through the Crisis: a Cooperative Feat of Strength
"The cooperative principle that 'what one cannot do alone, all can do together' applies to us more than ever," says Mirco Burkardt, who has been responsible for sales at the Mayschoß-Altenahr cooperative since October 2021. The business lost significant parts of its buildings, the cellar was completely flooded, and the administration is now housed in containers on the other side of the Ahr. There is still no landline connection as before the flood. Wine sales currently take place in a makeshift vinotheque that was once part of the warehouse. Reconstruction will take years, and investments such as the new bottling hall have also had to be postponed.
The cellar of the winegrowers' cooperative can also be reached from the provisional vinotheque. After the night of the flood, the barrels were lying wildly on top of each other. According to a rough estimate, about 10,000 liters were lost during that treacherous night. The display area with old winegrowing equipment no longer exists, rooms that were used for events can no longer be used. From the wine that could be saved, the cooperative created the "Edition Flutwein" which developed into a bestseller.
The last nine months have been exhausting for the largest wine producer in the Ahr region, which generally produces an average of around 1.3 mill. liters of wine. While volunteers were indispensable in the first few weeks, professional help from craftsmen has been needed since the winter. Immense gratitude goes to both groups, not only from Mayschoß. "The businesses have given 200 percent," says Burkardt, praising the support of the skilled tradesmen, which are themselves confronted with worries about new recruits, price explosions and availability problems.
By January, the team and helpers had rinsed more than 1.4 million bottles, and the reception area for grapes was completed just a few days before the harvest began. This was just in time for a special kind of harvest: directly opposite the cooperative are steep terraced vineyards belonging to the Burkardts. Instead of transporting the grapes down using the monorack, as would normally be the case, the high-altitude rescue team stepped in and took over the transport with its specialized equipment.
Throughout the valley, the winegrowers were looking forward to autumn in trepidation. Above all, helpers for harvest were missing - because they themselves were busy building up their own or others' livelihoods or were experiencing travel restrictions due to the pandemic.
Small Volumes: Lack of Wine Hinders Sales
The harvest turned out to be small. There were no selections in Mayschoß in 2021. The cooperative and winemakers throughout the valley are in dire need of a larger harvest this year. That for which the region is renowned, red wine, is currently in short supply. The changeable autumn weather, lack of time to work in the vineyard, including plant protection, and the lack of often critical infrastructure for grape reception and processing have significantly diminished red wine production in 2021.
Moreover, shortly after the flood, traders and private individuals ordered what they could out of solidarity to support the wineries. Even today, the trade still shows understanding, although at least the cooperative is increasingly hearing critical voices calling for clean bottles.
Now, because of empty cellars, they are hoping for a strong vintage in terms of volume. On the one hand, to be able to deliver, on the other hand, to generate sales, which they urgently need for the construction work. A curious predicament is that while elsewhere there is a lack of sales because there is too much wine that - to put it bluntly - nobody buys, the Ahr winemakers are missing out on sales because everyone wants to buy, but there is no wine to sell.
Bureaucracy Slows Distribution of Aid and Donations
In addition, delays and neglect on the part of politicians and authorities are making reconstruction more difficult. Bureaucratic red tape prevented the wine producers from quickly obtaining relief and donation funds, the disbursement of which administrative authorities had previously announced with words such as "unbureaucratic," "uncomplicated" or "speedy."
According to the authorities, one difficulty was that wineries are not private individuals and therefore cannot receive donations untaxed. Taxing them would not only have reduced the amount but would also have meant that the state was earning from the suffering of those affected. Perhaps the "concern about setting a precedent was too great," Burkardt speculates, referring to more frequent extreme weather events in general. Through campaigns such as those of the VDP or the association "AHR - A wineregion needs Help for Rebuilding", whose chairmen are Adeneuer and Kriechel, several million euros in donations have been generated - 4.5 million euros through Flutwein.de alone. In the meantime, payments are starting. It was "a hard struggle and anything but quick and uncomplicated", Kriechel remarks. Since the beginning of April, payments have been made from these privately organized funds.
Government support is still a long time coming. At least the competent authority Dienstleistungszentrum Ländlicher Raum DLR is paying out funds to repair buildings. Legally, the wineries write invoices to the associations, whereby they disclose their involvement to a certain extent, which leads to ethical conflicts and many hours of work for Adeneuer and Kriechel. After all, they don't want to know what their colleagues, neighbors, friends have lost to the floods.
Lack of Reality, Software Problems and Poor Information
Vineyards in the flooded area are another problem. Although most of the vineyards on the Ahr river are located on steep slopes, an area of about 50 hectares fell victim to the flood waters. Viticulture should no longer exist on about 10 hectares of it. However, the winegrowers are now to be compensated by the district. Initially, they were offered a paltry 30 cents per square meter. "This borders on expropriation," comments Schreiner. A realistic target, he says, is 15-20 euros.
The flow of information, especially by the district administration, has also been criticized since the night of the flood. This problem continues to make itself felt in the compensation payments for the properties - exacerbated by a typical German issue that has been causing a stir since the beginning of the pandemic: software deficiencies in the authorities that make for slow processes - which is also often used as an excuse.
Reconstruction: an End to 1980s Kitsch
Despite the losses and anger with the state, winemakers and the cooperative agree that the flood disaster also holds opportunities. As Burkardt explains, more and more young people have recently been coming to the valley, where before the flood disaster, wine-loving silver lions, primarily from the Cologne-Bonn area, frolicked in packs over the weekend. A rejuvenation of visitors to the Ahr, everyone agrees, is urgently needed. The kitsch wine culture from the 80s has now painfully gone. That creates the opportunity, instead of talking about rebuilding what was, to embark on new styles of buildings.
"We have opportunities now for a new vision," Schreiner sums up, looking to the future. There is no shortage of positive examples and ideas for how the Ahr could realign itself. "I’m only talking about the future ", adds Adeneuer confidently.
"Our doors are Open"
However, the winemakers are dependent on visitors. Gradually, restaurants and hotels are opening again and events are taking place. After all, the region lives to a large extent from tourism.