Civil protection from below

Learning from historical natural disasters is necessary

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Floods and other natural catastrophes have always existed. But as a new study shows, much of what was already known and implemented 200 years ago in civil protection today is forgotten today.

Can one learn from history? "If you should, " says Guido Poliwoda, environmental historian of the University of Bern: "At best, nobody would drown in a flood and the damage would be much lower . The scientist studied the floods of the Elbe in Saxony in the 18th and 19th centuries and shows how the affected people learned to handle them.


"Land Under" in Saxony

The Elbe floods piled up in the period studied. The first, 1784, however, hit Saxony completely unprepared. There had been nothing like it for 130 years. "Meter-thick ice floes raced down the rivers, rubble destroyed houses, broken ships and logs stored on the banks shaved away with the tidal wave, which stood in their way, " Poliwoda describes the event. The flood plunged wintry Saxony into chaos. The monarch sent money, the military began cleanup, initial measures were taken, including dike guards, hygiene regulations and acoustic warning systems with cannons. "Learning steps", the author calls these measures, which served at that time almost only the defense.

Further flooding followed - an accumulation, which went along with a decrease of the average temperature in the so-called Dalton minimum, a cold phase from 1780 to 1830. Only this accumulation led to a "learning process" and finally to a "learning genesis". The aim was to prevent damage, because the expenses far exceeded the financial possibilities of the state by far. And the private donation readiness fell quickly. display

Professional reactions

In political Saxony, a system revolution developed. Possible solutions came from all layers of the population, including from the bottom up. They were taken seriously and implemented. Hierarchies flatten, not status was more decisive, but function. Thus, a real disaster management established itself. With success. The catastrophe of 1845 exceeded all previously measured water levels, but the authorities responded professionally: "Everywhere was with all the increasing danger, order, peace and confidence in the insight of the truly paternal authority, " noted a witness.

Race against forgetting

In 2002, Saxony was again affected by a flood, worse than anything else. The insights from the time of the Dalton minimum were far behind, a century in between with few natural disasters. The processing of this new disaster resulted in a lack of cooperation, communication and leadership across institutional and spatial boundaries.

Does it, as in historical times, need several disasters until an efficient disaster management is achieved again? The environmental historian is convinced that it would be possible to learn from history. But his most important insight: "A disaster management will fail if it is not carried from the bottom up." That Germany in 2002 was overwhelmed by the Elbe flood, the native Hanoverian not surprised: "Germany is organized federal-hierarchical and conservative." Too hierarchical, too conservative. "Dealing with disasters requires proactive learning, is progressive, " he emphasizes.

"Linking, communicating, learning, " is the name of the message, across country and time boundaries, because such events are not only a human disaster, but also economic. And they will increase, according to the consistent forecasts. Without disaster management, Poliwoda believes, the damage will be so great that individual insurers will no longer be prepared to carry them. Last year's elemental damage insurance has already been increased. And, as history shows, with the accumulation of private donations will decrease.

(University of Bern, 06.07.2007 - NPO)