Garrison firefighters assist during recent floods
June 13, 2013
KAISERSLAUTERN -- As Germany's Elbe River rose steadily toward a wall of sandbags, U.S. Army civilian firefighter Dieter Dörfler and his comrades stacked sandbags to hold the water back.
Dörfler was among civilian firefighters from U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemberg and U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern mobilized to support Germany's efforts to combat floods following weeks if rainy weather.
If the water breached the sandbag wall, farmer's fields, animals and local villages in the neighboring countryside would be in danger. Swirling muddy water, filled with wood and debris, inched closer during the night.
"When you stand on the wall, at the edge of the water that's coming higher and higher, you have this ängstlich feeling, said Dörfler, using the German term for apprehensive. "The water got very high, more than eight meters above the normal level."
In early June, heavy rainfall in Europe caused rivers in Central Europe to swell. News reports said 19 people died in flood-related incidents. In Northern Germany, the Elbe River threatened towns from Hamburg to Magdeburg. Flooded rivers also affected Hungary, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic.
News of the flooding touched Americans serving in Germany, as many have personal connections to the country, said Lt. Col. George Brown, U.S. Army Garrison Kaisersalutern's emergency services director. The garrison received several requests from German agencies for manpower, he said.
"This was something we supported without hesitation. We are partners with German emergency services," Brown said. "We share this place. We consider Germany as our home ."
By June 8, the decision was made to send six firefighters. Four went and two remained on standby. Others volunteered to backfill positions in the garrisons. The deployment did not impact the garrison's firefighting capabilities or services to the community, Brown said.
Dörfler, Tobias Eichelmann and Christoph Himbert, all U.S. Army civilian employees at Coleman Barracks in Mannheim, deployed to 350 miles north to Zeetze, Amt Neuhaus in the Lower Saxony region, said Tilman Holbe, assistant chief of operations.
Sembach firefighter Andreas Zell, a volunteer with the Technisches Hilfswerk, Germany's official disaster relief organization, known as THW, deployed with a crew heading north, said Daniel Riedel, head of Kaiserslautern's THW branch.
"He is a very experienced and high valuable volunteer of our organization," Riedel said. "He and his team arrived (in) Magdeburg on Sunday morning and started to work."
Volunteers came from all over Germany to help on the Elbe. Filling and stacking sandbags was tough, Dörfler said. But they kept things lighthearted to make the work go by, he said. Crews worked eight-hour shifts and slept on cots in a local fire station. A local company supplied food in a field kitchen.
"It's hard work," Dörfler said. "But we tried to keep it fun, telling each other, 'We'll make it. You can make it.'"
By Wednesday, the Elbe began to subside and the firefighters returned home. Local people strung up makeshift signs expressing their gratitude.
"A lot of the people from the village were saying, 'Thank you for helping us," Dörfler said. "It's a great feeling."