Hooray for the Technisches Hilfswerk

Technisches Hilfswerk’s logo. Photo used under public domain.

The Technisches Hilfswerk is the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief. After disaster events, it conducts rescue operations, combats flooding and oil spills, restores electricity supplies, and repairs infrastructure. This organization was responsible for a massive clean-up operation in historically significant buildings throughout the city in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Their acronym “THW” became commonplace in the city, painted on the many houses and buildings these rescuers entered. Their efforts paved the way for future preservationists in the city.

Some in New Orleans will recall, for instance, that “German engineers” worked alongside the Corps of Engineers after Katrina, pumping out public buildings. But little or nothing more is known about them and the German Technisches Hilfswerk organization to which they belong.

German Aid after Katrina

On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. After the levees failed, most of the city flooded and thousands of locals residents were left homeless, dazed, and in despair. Katrina became the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, and mistakes made by U.S. government relief agencies as well as by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made it one of the most destructive and deadly. The standard Katrina narratives focus on the efforts—and various failures—of local, state, and federal government; emphasize the heroic role of national and local responders; and credit mostly the Army Corps of Engineers with repairing the levee breaches and pumping out the floodwater. However, because of the magnitude of the storm and the damage it caused, the governments of other nations also offered their support.

On September 1st, 2005, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder offered to send the Technisches Hilfswerk to New Orleans, which the United States promptly accepted (“Hurrikan Katrina”: Schröder bietet deutsche Hilfe an.“Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk. N.p., 01 2005. Web. 15 November 2012. http://www.thw.de/SharedDocs/Meldungen/DE/Einsaetze/international/2005/09/meldung_001_usa.html). The THW relief teams that arrived in New Orleans a few days later to assist the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were specialists in Überflutungen and Hochwasserschäden, or flooding and water damage. They came from eight different states all over Germany, including Baden-Württemberg, Rheinland-Pfalz and Saarland in the southwest; Bremen and Nordrhein-Westfalen in the northwest; Schleswig-Holstein in the north; and Thüringen and Hessen in the center. On the 11th of September, they began pumping out water from Pumping Station 19, a building heavily flooded and damaged. This particular site was critical for the removal of water from the New Orleans area, so it was imperative to drain the floodwater from the building and to repair its pumping installations (“THW-Einsatz in Louisiana: Die Pumparbeiten haben begonnen.” Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk. N.p., 11 2005. Web. 15 November 2012. http://www.thw.de/SharedDocs/Meldungen/DE/Pressemitteilungen/international/2005/09/meldung_009.html).Two days later, the rest of the THW´s DIA AVS 650 TS/4T Hochleistungspumpen were in use (“Alle Pumpen laufen.” Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk. N.p., 13 2005. Web. November 15, 2012. http://www.thw.de/SharedDocs/Meldungen/DE/Einsaetze/international/2005/09/meldung_016_usa.html). These are high-performance pumps capable of removing 15,000 liters, or 3963 gallons, per minute (“Hurrikan Katrina und Rita: Der Einsatz im Überblick.“Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk. N.p., 29 2005. Web. 15 November 2012. http://www.thw.de/SharedDocs/Meldungen/DE/Einsaetze/international/2005/09/lage_amerika/lage_010.html). In total, the THW pumped 5,000,000 cubic meters of water out of New Orleans, an equivalent of 1,320,860,262 gallons (“Jahresbericht 2005.” Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk. Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk, 15 2007. Web. 15 November 2012. http://www.bmi.bund.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/DE/Themen/Sicherheit/BevoelkerungKrisen/THWJahresbericht2005.html?nn=294808). The agency´s places of operation included Station 19 and other pumping stations in Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, police stations, municipal works facilities, City Hall, the Superdome (which housed many New Orleans residents after the storm), as well as Charity and other hospitals (“Hurrikan Katrina und Rita: Der Einsatz im Überblick”)  By means of this work, the THW helped reestablish safety, shelter, and health care in New Orleans, placing the city more quickly on a path to revitalization and allowing it to rebuild sooner as a result.

The International Organization

The Technisches Hilfswerk is organized into six hundred and sixty-eight local chapters and consists of a total of 80,000 members, 99% of whom are volunteers (“An Overview of the Federal Agency for Technical Relief.” Technisches Hilfswerk. Feb. 2010. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. http://www.thw.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/EN/background-informations/THW_im_Ueberblick.pdf?__blob=publicationFile). Founded in 1950 to replace the civil defense organization of the Third Reich and to help rebuild a democratic Germany after WWII, the Technisches Hilfswerk has over the last 60 years come to provide disaster relief to countries around the world, often in multiple disaster areas at once. For instance, the agency provided relief assistance after the oil spill in Spain in 2002, the earthquake in Iran in 2003, the East Indian Ocean tsunami disaster in 2004, and the Japanese Tohoku earthquake in 2011. In 2005, the Technisches Hilfswerk was active in 30 nations and, around the time of Katrina, was operating in Romania and Pakistan as well as in Bavaria, the German home state of BMW automobiles, October Fest, and the FC Bayern München (“Technische Nothilfe.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Nov. 2012. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technische_Nothilfe). Because of their saturated blue head-to-toe uniforms and blue vehicles, the Hilfswerk volunteers have come to be called “Blaue Engel,” or “Blue Angels” (“A Fascination with Helping: The History of the Technische Hilfswerk.” Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk. N.p.. Web. 15 November 2012. http://www.thw.de/EN/THW/Overview/History/history_node.html). Their logo, widely on display on their equipment in New Orleans in 2005, is the acronym “THW,” sometimes written vertically into the center of a gear wheel that symbolizes technology.

When Americans hear the term “Blue Angels,” they will think of the daring flight demonstration squadron of the U.S. Navy. When we hear the phrase in connection with German or Germany, we will invariably think of the film The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich. To these existing entries in the American cultural lexicon we can now add another, unknown meaning: the blue-uniformed members of the German disaster relief agency. Since Katrina, this denotation carries connotations of German and American cooperation, voluntarism, and technological competence.

Results of the Efforts in New Orleans

The efforts of the THW and of its support teams (a humanitarian intervention unit from Luxemburg and a Johanniter medical emergency group from Germany) were a true inspiration not only to the city of New Orleans, but to volunteer organizations across the world. For their hard work these international volunteers were honored at a jazz concert and given a golden key to St. Bernard Parish by Parish President Henry Rodriguez (“Rede des US-Botschafters William R. Timken bei der Veranstaltung “Amerika sagt Danke, Deutschland”.“Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk. N.p., 09 2005. Web. 15 November 2012. http://www.thw.de/SharedDocs/Meldungen/DE/Veranstaltungen/national/2005/11/meldung_004.html). THW President Georg Thiel called the key a “symbol of the importance of the THW´s international missions” (“Einsatz in New Orleans: goldener Schlüssel als “Dankeschön”.” Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk. N.p., 10 2005. Web. 15 November 2012). Back in their home country of Germany, the THW volunteers received a standing ovation from the crowd at an NFL Europe American football game between the Berlin Thunder and Frankfurt Galaxy. All the support from both America and Germany showed how vital the THW´s role in New Orleans was, and how remarkable its contribution to saving this fantastic city and culture.

Presenting a key to the city and saying thank you to international volunteers is certainly appropriate and important, but another, perhaps more significant way of honoring them and expressing one’s gratitude is to honor their legacies, cultures, and languages, and to learn a little bit more about them. In America, partly because of a long history of immigration, we already know many German words such as sauerkrautbratwurstkindergarten, and autobahn. Thanks to the German Blue Angels’ first relief operation on American soil, we can now add another German word and make it an American household term (“Footballfans bejubeln Einsatzkräfte.” Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk. N.p., 24 2006. Web. 15 November 2012. http://www.thw.de/SharedDocs/Meldungen/DE/Veranstaltungen/national/2006/04/meldung_005.html). It is one of those larger units the German language forms by combining individual nouns and sometimes adjectives into longer compounds: Hochleistungspumpe. Since this compound joins smaller parts together into one, the word itself—as well as the object it names—is a good symbol of international ties and German and American cooperation.


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