A year after the terrible flood: "If the federal loan of 1 billion is well invested, it will be necessary to ask whether Wallonia should repay it"

A year after the terrible flood: “If the federal loan of 1 billion is well invested, it will be necessary to ask whether Wallonia should repay it”

The Home Secretary, Annelies Verlinden, takes a look at this tragedy and discusses lessons that can be learned from the public authorities’ response.

When you become Minister of the Interior, you don’t necessarily expect to manage this kind of crisis…

Since July 14, 2021, I’ve been back in the area several times. You can still see the damage today. All these empty houses, these houses for sale … After the height of the floods, I managed to fly over the area by helicopter and saw the seriousness of the situation: everything was gone, even the soil from the gardens washed away roads, bridges, schools … We cannot imagine the scale of this tragedy. Now we have to rebuild an entire area. In Schudfontein and elsewhere, from the first day we visited the reception centers: the residents lost everything, every family memory, every photo. Often, they have not yet received news from loved ones. Getting back to life for these most vulnerable populations is in itself a major challenge.

After the passion, politics quickly regained its rights. Critics have criticized the federal government’s slow response. Was it justified?

Cybersecurity, pandemic, Ukraine crisis, Brexit… Managing a crisis at the federal level is just the top of the security cycle. In the face of flooding, the federal government did what it could. We had contacts with governors before the flood peak arrived and some of them told us that entering into the federal phase of crisis management is not necessary. When we saw many counties seriously affected, the Federal Crisis Management phase began. Ten days later, only nine municipalities were still involved, and this federal phase was terminated after consulting with governors. Then a Federal Support Unit was created. It was an innovation because relief coordination had to be done by the municipalities and county. This cell coordinated federal aid through February.

What lessons did you learn from these events? Two studies in progress: an analysis of emergency procedures and an analysis of the civil protection reorganization decided by Jean Gambon (N-VA) under the Michel government. He suppressed four out of the six barracks.

As for the analysis by the Expert Committee (known as the “Learning Committee”) on emergency procedures, I don’t expect any revolution. We will receive his conclusions at the end of October or the beginning of November. But from my contacts with experts, it seems that the importance of good communication and good organization in emergency situations will be highlighted. I have already begun drafting a new law on emergency planning and management so that the structures used for each type of crisis are the same. This is not always the case and it does not make things easier.

Is the Belgian institutional system in question?

The relationship between the federal government and the territories is very important. During natural disasters, territories are especially qualified to prevent and rebuild housing, roads, etc. Rain is the responsibility of the Federal Meteorological Institute, but the water in rivers and canals is the responsibility of the regional level. So everyone should communicate well. It is true that the structure of our state did not facilitate things during the floods. However, I noticed a real will for cooperation between the levels of strength. But, as I was saying, danger can come from a lack of communication, where everyone thinks on their own and shuts themselves off in their own vision of what they have to do.

Should more powers be given to the federal government in crisis management?

no. At the federal level, for example, we don’t have river experts because that’s not our business. We will not repeat the professions of specialists in the provinces for crisis management at the federal level! It is better to organize the cooperation well.

And about civil protection reform?

The report is expected to be released by the end of August. Experts and private sector partners (universities) appointed to analyze this reform, implemented in 2019, conducted several field interviews.

A mistake by Jan Jambon, the former Home Secretary?

I hear figures from several parties in the previous majority (Michel’s government) admit that canceling the barracks was not a right decision. Investing in Crisis Management Like Insurance: Hopefully nothing will happen while mobilizing the means and human resources that cost a lot of money. How do you prepare as best you can? What investment are we willing to make?

What do you think exactly?

For civil protection, work with specialized outposts should be considered. Not every barracks has to do everything. Cooperation relations will also be established with relief areas. For crisis management, giving the law the same backbone at the federal level, whatever the situation, is very important. Professionals should train more in the face of crises and acquire organizational mechanisms. Finally, we must invest in a culture of risk taking: people should evacuate when a letter from the authorities tells them to do so. In the Netherlands, this communication was better.

The cost of the floods to Walloon funds is 2.8 billion euros. The federal government had loaned the region a billion. Was it enough?

The Funding Act does not allow the federal government to provide funds. But, on a personal level, I think that if the federal loan of 1 billion is well invested, it will be necessary to question whether Wallonia should repay it. We must show solidarity between institutions in the face of these unexpected situations. Flood disaster on Wallonia.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *