‘The sky fell on our head. Liège and its region had floods of an exceptional magnitude, leading to its worst catastrophe of the century!’
Interview with Willy Demeyer, Mayor of Liège, about the floods in Wallonia in July 2021
By Gaston Moonen
What happens when a disaster strikes? What is the cascade of action among authorities? Who does what and who coordinates? Where does assistance come from? These are practical questions, which we presented to Willy Demeyer, Mayor of Liège, a few months after the July 2021 floods, also to get some insights into how disaster assistance unfolds. Since such questions went beyond the remit of the City of Liège and the Mayor, he coordinated his replies with the staff of Elio Di Rupo, Minister‑President of Wallonia, Belgium.
Solidarity and European cooperation
The Liège region has experienced floods before. How does the July 2021 flood compare to previous ones? What was the essential first action which had to be taken?
Willy Demeyer: In July this year, the sky fell on our head. Liège and its region had floods of an exceptional magnitude, leading to its worst catastrophe of the century! The July flooding was totally exceptional, in that:
• it was geographically and hydrologically completely unforeseeable;
• water flow was extremely high — measured at 3 300 m³/sec at its peak in the middle of July;
- the fierce current made rescue missions impossible; and
- there is a steep incline all along the Meuse, Vesdre and Ourthe.
Given these exceptional circumstances, experience and well-established crisis management teams are vital. In Liège, all the various response teams are used to working together, which helps with crisis management. The City of Liège and the regional crisis unit were in contact from the outset, and managed events throughout the various stages of the crisis.
Belgium is a European country. Yet, when a disaster strikes, many non‑Belgians will consider it a national issue and perhaps less of a European issue. Where did the first aid flows, of material and manpower, come from, from which levels? Did you receive aid from the EU, from other countries? Was there a feeling of support and solidarity from outside Belgium?
Willy Demeyer: Given the scale of the disaster, other teams naturally demonstrated solidarity and unity. Emergency assistance gradually arrived, first from provincial and regional areas, then from the north of Belgium.
Every possible solidarity mechanism was activated, from local to European level. The Federal Government activated the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. Reinforcements then arrived from Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria and Italy. The catastrophic weather conditions prevented access by air and delayed arrival somewhat, but their assistance, which embodies the values of European solidarity, was particularly appreciated by both the authorities and the public. In terms of possible recommendations for the future, it would be good to ensure that rescue teams are fully autonomous, logistically speaking.
When many emergency services are involved, coordination and communication are essential. In the case of a flood, who are the responsible authorities in the city of Liège, its surrounding area and Wallonia? Is there a set protocol on coordination and actions to be taken and information to be shared and provided?
Crisis management and emergency planning in Belgium
Willy Demeyer: In Belgium, emergency preparedness and response — commonly known as crisis/disaster management — is organised at municipal, provincial and federal level in accordance with the Royal Decree of 22 May 2019. The decree allocates tasks and responsibilities.
During the July flooding, the provincial crisis phase was triggered first, as several municipalities in the province of Liège were affected. The following day, with other provinces also affected, the federal phase was triggered. In the federal phase, the National Crisis Centre organises and coordinates emergency planning and crisis management.
In crisis management, relief is divided into five disciplines:
• Discipline 1: rescue operations (rescue, firefighting, etc.);
• Discipline 2: medical, sanitary and psychosocial support;
• Discipline 3: police missions (policing on the ground, investigations, keeping order, etc.);
• Discipline 4: logistical support; and
• Discipline 5: informing the public and supporting the administrative authority.
Wallonia has no specific crisis management powers. However, at the initiative of its Minister‑President, it set up a Special Commission to manage the situation from the end of the acute phase of the crisis (food aid, psychological support, security, housing, etc.) and to manage reconstruction.
Disaster coordination at work
How has, in the larger Liège area, the coordination been between mayors and civil protection experts? Can you elaborate on that cooperation?
Willy Demeyer: The mayors of the municipalities affected in the greater Liège area worked with the crisis management and emergency planning bodies set up for these circumstances at each level: municipal; provincial — Governor of Liège — provincial crisis unit; regional — Regional Crisis Centre; and federal — Minister for the Interior — National Crisis Centre. This in line with the development of the crisis and the emergency situation. Emergency reception centres for those evacuated were set up by the municipalities located on plateaux above the valleys affected.
The association of mayors of the 24 cities and municipalities of the greater Liège area — Liège Métropole — coordinated crisis management in the less acute phase as the floodwaters subsided, working in two areas:
First, provision of workers and administrative staff, construction equipment and IT equipment, and premises/offices, by municipalities that were unaffected:
- emergency road and drain clearance/unblocking, ongoing in the days and weeks after the flooding;
- continuity of essential public services, in particular civil registries, in the municipalities most affected.
Second, coordination of broader social assistance:
- operating emergency reception centres during the initial days of the crisis (acute phase);
- managing donations of food, hygiene products, furniture and household appliances by setting up a network for collection, storage and redistribution; and
- centralising emergency rehousing services for those affected.
Action in these two areas was coordinated with the crisis management bodies set up at provincial level — the provincial crisis unit under the authority of the Governor and the provincial solidarity unit under the authority of the Provincial College.
What did you and your colleagues consider as the biggest challenge to be addressed to support the people affected by the flooding? What would you consider their biggest needs, then and now?
Willy Demeyer: At the time of the flooding, the message from the alert system was not sufficiently clear and did not indicate the scale of the disaster that was about to unfold. Extra time would have enabled appropriate protective measures to be taken. Furthermore, the absence of means to intervene, to rescue, pre‑prepared local and national resources for action, rescue and care — civil protection and military — tailored to a natural disaster of this magnitude.
After the flooding, the biggest needs were and sometimes are:
- great difficulty in finding long‑term temporary housing;
- difficulty in accessing professional equipment to dry out the homes affected;
- need for psychological support for victims;
- need for legal and administrative assistance with the various compensation procedures;
- need to continue or return to a ‘normal’ life for residents in the worst affected municipalities or neighbourhoods where both public infrastructure (sports hall, crèche, school, etc.) and shops were destroyed or severely damaged.
Learning curve for disaster preparedness?
While the Meuse is the main river going through Liège, a lot of water came from another source, from the Vesdre Valley. Was there a disaster plan anticipating this, and if so, did it work in practice?
Willy Demeyer: The legislation requires municipalities to have an emergency plan and an official responsible for emergency preparedness. The City of Liège therefore has a general emergency preparedness and response plan. In 1926, the City of Liège experienced highly exceptional severe flooding when the Meuse burst its banks. Following this, significant investments were made into works on the banks of the Meuse, Vesdre and Ourthe. These works prevented the Meuse from flooding and saved the city centre. The scale of the disaster would otherwise have been far greater.
Emergency measures can range from providing shelter to victims of floods to reconstruction aid. Can you indicate which type of aid the City of Liège, the region and Wallonia has concentrated on and has the flooding led to structural changes? Or do you expect it will lead to changes regarding federal and regional emergency plans?
Willy Demeyer: As early as the night of 14 July, the City of Liège set up a reception facility for those affected. This initial emergency assistance has evolved since July, but still aims to cover the primary needs of those affected: meals, showers, laundry, administrative help and psychological support. Community‑based reception centres are still open seven days a week in the two local neighbourhoods affected, Chêné and Angleur.
The Walloon Region also responded very quickly by setting up a Special Commission for Reconstruction, focusing on two core initiatives: Response and Reconstruction. The Response initiative aims to help municipalities meet basic needs: housing, food, psychological support for those affected and those involved, help with the administrative operation of the municipalities affected, repairing and securing infrastructure, waste management, economic and social recovery, communication with those affected, etc. The Reconstruction initiative concerns the preventive measures to be implemented, particularly land use planning, town planning, etc. Wallonia is now providing for a reconstruction plan of €2 billion in total.
The changes to be made regarding emergency preparedness will be reflected in the findings of the Walloon Committee of Inquiry and the hearings in the Federal Parliament.
As a public entity, you operate under various accountability frameworks. Is there any provision for specific arrangements to ensure accountability processes are applied in emergency situations to the aid provided and what do you expect public auditors to contribute? Where would you welcome their insights?
Willy Demeyer: As mentioned above, the Royal Decree of May 2019 lays down the tasks and responsibilities of those involved. The Committee of Inquiry is likely to make recommendations for the future.
Cross‑border info and reconstruction aid from different levels
Cross‑border floods such as we saw last summer show that some catastrophes are not confined to national borders. However, recovery and relief actions are often managed on a mostly national level. Where do you see opportunities for better and closer cooperation and synergies between neighbouring countries in the context of emergency response?
Willy Demeyer: One of the difficulties we had to face was the very large geographical area affected by the floods and the intensity of the flooding. The weather alert model should be refined in order to identify the geographical areas concerned more precisely, as this has a significant impact on crisis management. It is important to debrief and share experiences in order to improve national and EU response protocols.
The homes of many people affected by the disaster have structural damage but they do not have the financial means to reconstruct and renew. What are municipalities and the region doing to address this problem and where do you see possibilities for the EU to assist?
Willy Demeyer: In Belgium, the insurance intervention ceiling is capped by law. To provide optimum support to those concerned, the Walloon Region, led by the Minister‑President, negotiated an insurance intervention ceiling of twice the previous level and undertook to cover amounts beyond this ceiling. Exceptionally, a regional decree provided for assistance from the Disaster Fund (which also covers uninsured persons).
At local level, the City of Liège has taken various measures to help citizens with administrative procedures. Collaboration has been set up with the Bar Association to extend free legal aid. Finally, the Federal Government has taken steps to activate the European fund for disaster assistance.
This article was first published on the 3/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.