In July 2021, Germany experienced some of the worst flooding ever. Areas in the North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate states were pounded by 148 liters of rain in 48 hours, The Guardian reported. Normal July rainfall for the area is 80 liters.
The narrow Ahr Valley region was hit especially hard. With few exit points, floodwaters rose quickly in the district, reaching a height of 9 meters in some areas. The scale and speed of the flooding was overwhelming. Rising waters knocked out siren systems, the internet, and other utilities, making it hard to notify those in danger and to send help.
“It was like a war without bombs and armies. So much was destroyed—streets, motorways, supermarkets, everything completely flooded. Some families lost everything, including their homes,” notes Jens K., a senior advisory solution consultant at ServiceNow and a resident of another area struck by flooding. “The worst-hit areas were completely decimated.”
Jens was one of the luckier ones. His home was only 400 meters from the devastation—saved by a local dam. Because of his proximity to the scene, Jens joined many others in a first wave of help. They pumped out water, took supplies to the affected, and rescued documents from floodwaters.
“It’s very different on the ground to what you see on TV,” he says. “There’s an awful smell in the air. You can see the look in people’s eyes when they’ve lost everything. It’s indescribable.”
Many of Jens’ ServiceNow colleagues also wanted to help. Markus M., senior principal success architect and culture leader for Germany at ServiceNow, lives one hour southwest of the flood zone. “I saw it on TV. It was like a bulldozer had smashed through. We quickly put out an appeal for donations and put together a video for our Central European teams to give them an idea of the destruction.”
Some team members wanted to travel to the affected areas to help. Immediate circumstances made this far too difficult. “We made a conscious decision not to rush straight to the Ahr Valley but to be part of a second wave of helpers,” explains Andreas W., head of solution consulting for Central Europe.
“The initial devastation in a disaster area is not suitable for a huge influx of people. Services are stretched, infrastructure is at capacity, and so on. We wanted to wait until structures were more organized so we could ensure our help was as effective as possible and didn’t get in the way of the appropriate emergency services.”
From keyboards to hammer drills
Over the next four weeks, the ServiceNow team coordinated across Germany via instant messaging to formulate a solid plan. “At first, we created a small group just to share information,” says Anett P., a business process consultant. “But very quickly, we were all discussing how we as individuals could help in person.”
The group divided into specific teams based on their availability to travel to the affected areas. The hard, manual labor they did on the ground was a world away from their usual responsibilities at ServiceNow.
“A lot of people in the area use oil heating. When that oil escapes and mixes with water, it’s extremely hazardous. It was our job to clean all that up and safely remove the hazard. So, we were there, hammer drills in hand, for eight hours a day, blasting away rubble. It’s a bit different from my day job,” explains Mathias B., a technical consultant.
The optimism of those affected in the flood areas motivated the team. “Despite everything that had happened, many of the locals maintained a positive attitude the whole way through. I spoke to one couple who had recently bought a hotel that had been almost completely destroyed by the flood. They’d lost everything, but they still maintained their sense of humor. I found that amazing,” Mathias says.
“It was kind of like COVID didn’t get us, and these floods won’t get us either,” Jens adds about the sentiment he picked up on the ground. “Despite everything that’s happened, it’s a second chance for us, an opportunity to start again.”
Company-paid volunteer time
Mathias got involved because it was the right thing to do. “Many people want to help, but they just don’t have the time,” he says. “ServiceNow gives us 20 hours to devote to volunteer work of our choosing, so it was a no-brainer. As for the motivation, well, it’s just human. When Markus and Jens showed the videos of the situation and I got a sense of the power of this flood, I just wanted to help.”
Andreas felt the same way. “The kind of damage we saw is not something you can repair just with a few euros. Donation is so important, but at the end of the day, you still need people to go and get their hands dirty. After all, we can’t just expect someone else to do it. We recognized that and wanted to get in there and help out.”
The ServiceNow HR portal made it easy for employees in the area, like Jens, to do more. “I was able to flag on our HR tool that I’m based in the region, and, as a result, claimed an extra two or three days to help out,” he explains.
ServiceNow also helped cover additional costs and material needs. “For every hour we donated, we got $10 to invest in donations to help people on the ground. As for our travel costs, accommodation costs, it was all covered. There was never any question that the business would see to that,” Markus adds.
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Recalling the experience, Anett says, “Many of us assume that people aren’t helpful and that they’re not willing to give up their time or their resources to help others. But what I saw is that everyone was willing to help. No one gave up hope. This has really shown me how much power people have.”
Markus agrees. “It’s easy nowadays to focus on horror stories because it grabs attention. But I’m an optimist. There are hundreds of people out there helping and have been every single day since these floods happened. We all saw all the banners along the motorway thanking volunteers in the flood zone. And we all felt the positive energy from those in the affected areas. It’s all this that makes it worthwhile. It was a genuinely fulfilling experience.”
We're proud of our team members and their volunteer efforts. The crisis in the Ahr Valley—and elsewhere—isn’t over. Visit www.helfer-shuttle.de to see how you can help those affected in the region. Every gesture, from donating to buying local wine, makes a difference.
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