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Rudi Kiefer: German rivers suffered similar flooding as North Georgia towns
Rudi Kiefer
North Georgia wasn’t the only place hit by flooding this month. Southwestern Germany experienced severe rainfall as well. As a result, the historic cities of Mannheim and Heidelberg saw their downtown areas flooded.

Like Helen and Cleveland, the old portion of Heidelberg is built on a narrow floodplain, with steep hills confining the reach of the Neckar river on both sides. For North Georgia, it was the Gulf of Mexico that produced an enormous storm system, funneling moisture into our area from the south.

In Germany, the situation was similar, with the Mediterranean building the same type of low-pressure cell. It became squeezed between two highs, which acted like roadblocks. The result was a “hundred-year flood.”

News magazine Spiegel reported that 6 billion gallons of rainwater fell from the sky during the first week of June. In the historic downtown of Heidelberg, the famous Old Bridge and adjoining streets, as well as the ground floors of buildings, sat in several feet of murky water. The confined position of Heidelberg makes flood control difficult because there’s no alternative drainage route. This makes it resemble the Chattahoochee in Helen, only on a larger scale.

It’s different in the Mannheim-Ludwigshafen area, where the Rhine valley is 25 miles wide. But that river, into which the Neckar drains, was vastly modified by an engineering project that began in the late 18th century, and has repercussions to the present day. Ironically, its purpose was flood control. Under the supervision of Gottlieb Tulla, the wild forks and wetlands of the Rhine were cut off, and the river was straightened. Stone embankments force the stream into its artificial bed. This provided relief for the many fishing villages of the 18th and 19th centuries, which had suffered from the constant changes of the river, as well as malaria in the waterlogged swamps.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, where large cities and industry centers now occupy the former wetlands. Runoff from the paved and built-over areas is rapid. The mighty Rhine can no longer expand into swampy backwaters, and flood peaks run downriver with great speed.

Where the Neckar is draining into it, higher than normal levels prevent rapid discharge. In this way, the old downtown of Heidelberg is affected not only by its Georgia-like valley location, but also by centuries-old engineering that has done as much harm as good.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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