The Oder River Flood
by Frank Schiersner
It is a simple truth that most crises hit us sudcomfodenly and unprepared. But, the following case study unveils the unrtable fact, that even a well-equipped organization with a staff of crisis experts may suddenly find itself under unexpected media pressure.
After the reunification of Germany (October 3rd, 1990), five new states were founded in the area of the former GDR. All of them established new administrations with the help of government experts from the western states. One of the new states is Brandenburg, which embraces the city-state of Berlin and, thus, Germany's capital. Brandenburg's eastern border is formed by the Oder River, which is also the border with Poland.
The state of Brandenburg is a rural one dominated by forests and lakes. Thus, in the summer months, burning forests usually keep the Department of the Interior's disaster control busy. But, in 1997, crisis came from a different angle.
In July 1997 heavy rain over eastern Europe led to a high water-level at the Oder River. What began as a story with local interest only turned out to be of nationwide, and finally international, interest when the dangerous pressure on the dikes of Brandenburg and Poland lasted for days and weeks. With the dikes being soaked with water, breaches became likely and the Department for Disaster Control worked 24 hours a day to organize material (e.g. 8,860,000 sandbags, 61 helicopters, 1,394 trucks, 219 caterpillars) and to coordinate the help of the armed forces (30,000 soldiers) and several emergency services and non-government organizations (about 20,000 helpers). Sixty-eight thousand inhabitants prepared to leave their homes; 6,483 inhabitants actually had to.
On July 27th, the dike broke and the area flooded by the water of the Oder created a lake of 56.5 square kilometers. Here and in villages near the dike about 200 houses were damaged by the flood - thus about 400 people faced the burden of having to repair/reconstruct their homes. In Poland, the problem was even worse, but this case history focuses on Brandenburg only.
The fast-increasing public interest in this crisis created three side problems for Brandenburg's Department of the Interior:
- Individuals and companies called to offer help. Lacking a help desk, these incoming calls and faxes went right to the disaster control unit and blocked their telephones.
- The press office of the department did not, at first, realize that journalists were calling in the middle of the night and thus also blocking Disaster Control's phone lines.
- Growing international interest tremendously increased calls by non-German-speaking journalists from all time zones. But, the press office had only three English-speaking members and one French-speaking member.
To get the Disaster Control Unit out of the press- and help-offers business, the Department took three instant measures:
- A separate unit was organized to coordinate private help and donations. This unit worked 24 hours a day. A toll-free hotline was installed.
- The press office was reorganized to work shifts 24 hours a day.
- English and French speaking members of the department were asked to volunteer for the press office.
Moreover, the press office started to use the World Wide Web to publish basic information about the current flood (e.g. water levels at different locations). These Web pages were updated every hour.
The evaluation of crisis management during the Oder Flood led to a reorganization of the coordination between the different units. Moreover, permanent State Government volunteers assigned to the disaster control, press and help units are now given special training.
This case study was originally published in: Jonathan Bernstein (Editor),
Crisis Manager: The Internet Newsletter About Crisis Management, 1st Volume (2000), Issue 14 (15th August), Web Site: www.bernsteincom.com/crisismgr081500.html
About the author
Frank Schiersner M.A. was a member of the press office of Brandenburg's Department of the Interior from 1992 to April 2000. Today he is the chief editor of Brandenburg's State-Intranet.
Ministerium des Innern Brandenburg
Phone: +49 (0)331 866 2971
Fax: +49 (0)331 866 2102