Ralf Breuer is buoyed up because the ice-cream truck has just made the rounds for the day and he’s starting to find his second wind for the grim and arduous task before him.
He lives just 10 minutes away from Bad-Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, one of the worst impacted towns in Germany to be hit by the recent devastating floods, and has been getting by on minimal sleep, riding his bicycle throughout the city to help where he can, layered in mud.
“In the first days and even now, unfortunately bodies are found in trees, in corners, behind houses,” the 52-year-old tells me over Whatsapp.
Ralf is one of an army of volunteers from across the country that has descended on the western states of Rhineland-Pfalz, Nordrhein-Westfalen and Bavaria, where the flood waters have killed 177 people, with another 149 still listed as missing.
They have partly lost everything and also had no real insurance – that means they do not know how it will go on.
After sending voice messages back and forth, the school teacher tells me he’s off to visit flood victims along the Ahr.
He takes the bike because the city is full of traffic, volunteers can’t get through and there’s only one functioning bridge for 40km of the Ahr – that way, he can use that bridge to ride across to both sides and distribute power banks and head torches.
After visiting families he writes: “It was very sad to have to hear everything. I had tears in my eyes once when the parents described how they fled. On foot. Through the water. Or that they had lost everything.”
He recalls following the news throughout the night as the disaster unfolded not far away from him. The floods along major rivers like the Rhine swept away bridges, cars and houses and blanketed once bustling towns in deep mud.
While he was not affected by the floods, he knew at that moment the lives of his friends, colleagues and families of the Boeselager Realschule where he teaches, had turned upside down.
“They have partly lost everything and also had no real insurance – that means they do not know how it will go on,” he says.
Frank Wissel, a 53- year-old squad leader of the fire brigade and emergency services in Aschaffenburg, was called-up by Rheinland-Pfalz officials. He and his team of 186 firefighters drove over 200km to reach Ahrweiler and spent four days there, less than a week after the floods had devastated the town.
“Many citizens had not received any help until then, so there were partly no fire brigades there,” he tells me.
A temporary emergency services base camp had been set up at the Nürnburgring, the famous motor racing track, to centralise help for Ahrweiler just 35km away, although some fire departments were sent home without being deployed in the crisis area.
“I was also afraid that we would experience the same thing and that is why we deployed ourselves to Ahrweiler, which is not really allowed, but I knew how big the need there is,” he explains.
Mr Wissel and his crew were highly motivated to help and took it upon themselves to find streets and houses in Ahrweiler where they could pump water and mud out, deliver drinking water and support the flood victims whether it was listening to their stories or having a chat.
“We always had the feeling that the crisis management had no overview of the actual situation,” he says.
Mr Wissel tells me that everything they needed – excavators, vehicles to get rid of the debris and pump mud out of the houses, they had to take care of themselves.
I just thought, yes, pack a shovel and go there.
“We could only shake our heads because we requested all of this from the crisis management but we didn’t get it,” he says.
“In my opinion, they should have alerted more forces immediately and should have sent them directly to the houses where the help was needed.”
Many of the victims of the catastrophic floods have lost everything and the volunteers are proving valuable as much for morale and support as for the practical role they play.
“Whether it’s with a shovel or with an excavator, or with a truck, the help I’ve seen has been mostly private,”says Thomas Martin*, a 58-year old historian, who spent five days helping in three towns (Odendorf, Liers and Kreuzberg an der Ahr).
Mr Martin lives in Bonn and regularly travels to the region for weekend hiking trips.
“I just thought, yes, pack a shovel and go there,” he says.
He tells me he knew what to expect because he also helped during the floods in 2002 along the Elbe river and in 2013 at Elster.
“When you get there, you are of course shocked because the destruction is just again so extreme,” he says.
Christian Keutel, 40, who lives in the nearby town of Koblenz, has friends who were affected by the floods in Ahrweiler and drives up regularly to help with the aftermath.
“The dimensions of this natural force are indescribable. The masses of water have left behind a picture of destruction,” the financial worker says.*
Mr Keutel says the willingness of everyone to help is “overwhelming” and “you can’t describe it” .
“Before, I could hardly believe that a catastrophe brings out the best in people – now you can experience it,” he adds.
In the affected areas debris and dirt is everywhere. Mountains of rubbish have piled up, cars are on top of each other – some stuck in the air at 45 degree angles – trees have been torn down and roads destroyed.
These are common scenes for some of the worst hit towns along the river Ahr in Rheinland-Pfalz after water levels reached around seven meters in the evening of July 14.
“It looked like the end of the world,” says Ralf.
During the first couple of days after the floods, Ralf was helping on the ground, cleaning out apartments.
“The water was still in the houses, the cellar was still full of water, with brown broth, with mud up to 10cm and there was more in the first floor,” he tells me.
He has received many requests through his Twitter account, where he posts updates, from people asking how they can help, where they can donate and what supplies are needed. Volunteers have brought clothes, food, hygiene items, money, shovels and wheelbarrows with them to help.
“You realise you are not alone in this situation, in this catastrophe, there are people who think of us,” he says.
Ralf has set up an emergency donation fund on behalf of the Boeselager-Realschule so that families from his school and families in need can be directly supported.
The school itself is damaged with all classrooms on the ground floor destroyed – the music hall, the science rooms, the cellar.
While the community is grieving, the tragedy has united people from all-around Germany and Ralf hopes it stays this way.
“They [the community] help each other, very, very much, but even more so the strangers help the residents here,” he says.
“When it’s the end of the day, around 6/7/8 o’clock, you sit down together, you drink a beer, you drink a wine – actually more beer,” he tells me.
The best way to describe this solidarity (see the video below: provided by Ralf Breuer): Last Saturday, as volunteers and flood victims joined for dinner and some drinks in Ahrweiler, a man sang “Hallelujah” in the back of a truck as people sang along.
“You talk to each other, you are very much in contact and actually it’s a nice get-together because you have the feeling that you’re doing something good for each other,” says Mr Martin.
Around Ahrweiler, there are messages on walls, “Together we can do this” and “Thank you for help”. A bed sheet hangs out the front of an apartment, simply reading “DANKE” (thank you).
Humour also gets people through these dark days.
“That keeps many people alive, you make jokes – ‘please take off the shoes when you come in’, ‘couldn’t you have cleaned up better’, ‘oh, how did the people park there’, ‘you’re not allowed to park like that’,” Ralf says.
On July 21, an emergency aid package, worth four hundred million euros was approved by the federal government to support those affected by the floods.
As Mr Keutel explains, the people need help and our support.
“It won’t be a sprint, it’ll be a marathon,” he says.
“It will take years, we are not talking about weeks, months – it will take years, and the way it was, it will not be anymore,” Ralf adds.
Main photo by Ralf Breuer. All photos and videos supplied.
*All interviews were conducted in German, transcribed and translated to English for the sake of this story.