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Flood warnings: Why was no action taken earlier?

© Belga

The Belgian authorities received 25 warnings of severe weather on the way, and yet nothing appears to have been done until the last minute, according to an investigation by Het Laatste Nieuws.

The warnings came from the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), whose mission statement reads: “The aim of the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) is to support preparatory measures before major flood events strike, particularly in the large trans-national river basins and throughout Europe in general.”

However ‘preparatory measures before major flood events’ appear to be exactly what was missing, HLN reveals.

The first warning came on 9 July, concerning the Rhine, in particular the portion running along the Belgo-German border. The second followed next day, this time regarding the Meuse/Maas, and the portion running between eastern Belgium and the Netherlands.

After those two initial warnings came the deluge: 25 warnings in four days.

And who receives these warnings? The paper, logically enough, contacted the Royal Meteorological Institute (RMI), who denied any involvement.

“We did not receive them,” said David Dehenauw, head of the scientific service of the RMI, which is a federal institution – a crucial distinction in Belgium’s federated system.

“We are not subscribers to EFAS, their reports are sent to the regions. Floods are also a regional competence, we do not have the right to deal with floods at the RMI.”

The warnings went to the federal crisis centre, and to the Walloon Office of Hydrological management. But when asked why nothing was done at the outset, that office passed the buck back to the mobility minister, Philippe Henry (Ecolo). Whose spokesperson told HLN, without further explanation: “These alerts are just one parameter that our services keep an eye on. There is a lot of fake news going around.”

EFAS is a Europe-wide system dating back to 2003, but with antecedents to 1999. It uses the latest scientific data from hydrological and meteorological institutions to create forecasts of possible flooding.

By 12 July, the RMI itself changed its alert from green to orange, and two days later to red. And still nothing happened. No preventive action, like the opening of dams. No warning to the population. No evacuations.

Then the storm hit on the Thursday 15 and Friday 16 July. It came as if from nowhere, but it was previewed well in advance.

Now Walloon minister-president Elio Di Rupo has ordered an enquiry into the run-up to the disaster, but he is in no rush.

“I understand the questions, and we are sensitive to them, but there is a hierarchy in the priorities,” he told Belga. 

“It goes without saying that the various services, in the light of what we hear here and there, are preparing elements which will be transmitted to all those who ask for them. But the priority now is still the emergency situation,” he said. 

“Afterwards we will have plenty of time to examine precisely what happened, in a transparent manner, by questioning all the departments that will be appropriate. For the moment, it there is still colossal work to be done on the ground.”