Lessons on flooding from a filmmaker | Culture | Reports on the arts, music and lifestyle in Germany | DW


Dutch film producer Johan Nijenhuis was a 16-year-old exchange student in Los Angeles, California when he experienced his very first seismic exercise.

“Everyone has been given instructions on what to do when an earthquake hits Los Angeles. All the students had to sit under the table. We were told how to feel the aftershocks, what to do when the building collapses and where to gather to meet the rescuers, ”he told DW.

At the time, he wondered aloud how his California friends could live their entire lives in an earthquake-prone area. They retorted that he was the type to talk, since he was from a country where much of its landmass is below sea level.

Nijenhuis’s time as an exchange student in Los Angeles helped him realize the need to prepare for disasters.

“From their point of view, we are the idiots. The odd thing is that we never train for this. I guess the same goes for the German cities that are currently affected,” said Nijenhuis, referring to the recent deadly floods which devastated parts of western Germany. “It’s never really a priority for us what to do when the water comes in,” he added.

Be prepared – always

It is this reality that inspired him to create and produce both a film and a miniseries that focus on storm and flood damage.

Preparation – or lack thereof – was the focal point of his six-part Dutch miniseries titled Swell. The 2016 production imagines what happens when the most powerful storm in history hits the Netherlands and neighboring Belgium. The drama presents several scenarios: a prime minister considering mass evacuations, prison guards facing agitated inmates in a prison below sea level, and a family mourning the loss of a child swept up in the waters.

While researching the miniseries, Nijenhuis came across some intriguing reports. One was on a an emergency exercise formerly conducted by the Dutch fire and emergency services which involved the evacuation of 60 residents of a nursing home for the elderly. This included motionless residents who had to be evacuated with their beds.

“And they [the emergency services] did a wonderful job. They got the first person out in under two hours! So imagine: what if you had to evacuate 60 elderly people? … You have to get these people out the right way. “

The result of this exercise contrasts with what happened last week in real time when floodwaters hit Sinzig, a town in the severely flooded district of Ahrweiler. There, 12 people in a home for the disabled drowned because they could not be evacuated in time.

Although Nijenhuis was not personally affected by any flooding, he did research flood risks in Amsterdam after his ex-wife, whom he calls a “preparator” – someone who is preparing for floods. catastrophic eventualities – suggested he leave his home for somewhere higher ground.

“I found out that Amsterdam is actually a pretty safe place. The historic center is quite high,” he said. Yet very few Dutch people know the height of their homes and the flood risks they might face, he added.

German flood victims were largely taken by surprise by the scale of the devastation, and many now wonder why authorities failed to respond to an extreme flood warning issued early last week by the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS). Professor Hannah Cloke, the hydrologist who created and advised EFAS, told Politico that the death toll in Germany was “a monumental failure of the system.”

“I would have expected people to evacuate. You don’t expect to see so many people die from the floods in 2021,” she said.

The raging river passes by a house on its bank with a partially destroyed road

The ability of rivers to cause significant damage has been underestimated, as in the town of Schuld

Art foreshadowing reality

Nijenhuis has also produced Storm in 2009. The film is set against the 1953 North Sea flood that hit the Netherlands, north-west Belgium, England and Scotland. A combination of wind, high tides and low pressure caused the sea to break through most of the water defenses, causing land to be flooded up to 5.6 meters (18.4 feet) above the sea. sea ​​level.

This led to the construction of Delta Works in the southwest of the Netherlands, a vast series of devices at the mouths of most estuaries that can be closed in an emergency and prevent flooding.

“The film [The Storm] was of course inspired by historical events, but the series [The Swell] is very inspired by the way we are protected now. When I researched the series, I found out that most people in the Netherlands are worried about the sea flooding the land. But in fact, the rivers that flood the land are a much more realistic danger, ”said Nijenhuis.

A barrier in the Netherlands that protects people from rising sea waters

Aerial view of a section of the works of the Delta, which protects millions of people from flooding in the southwest of the Netherlands

Climate awareness or unnecessary fear?

Can the series like The swell, or movies and books from similar angles, do they contribute to greater awareness of climate change, or do they instead trigger unnecessary fear?

Nijenhuis said that based on reactions he saw on Twitter to the miniseries, “The danger became real to a lot of people, and those who were concerned did their research.”

However, he said the recent flooding in Western Europe has created far greater awareness than any series.

“The fact that climate change is here is something I think 99% of people in our two countries agree and maybe wonder to what extent human behavior has contributed to it. Climate change is here… it’s almost too late to stop it. what we should learn now is how can we protect ourselves. “

Heed warnings

Despite producing a film and series that oddly foreshadowed the current situation in Western Europe, Nijenhuis said he was not a pessimist.

He observed that the way people treat the planet changes every 50 years. Transportation, for example, has moved from water-based to land-based methods, he said.

“The same goes for the way we use energy. A hundred years ago it was charcoal and wood. And then we went to gas, and now we have to go to solar panels and maybe be nuclear. These changes happen every 50 or 100 years, and so does the way we protect ourselves from water. ”

This, however, means rethinking where houses should be built. Nijenhuis explained that in the Netherlands, warnings from farmers against building houses too close to water bodies have sometimes gone unheeded. to the possible detriment of the owners.

“We have to take a good look at where we build houses. From the series, I learned that some areas will be affected by flooding and swell. You cannot prevent a ground from getting wet every now and then; we just need to ensure we don’t have tragic deaths when this happens. ”

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