On Wednesday, July 14, 2021, heavy rain began hitting regions near the Rhine River in Germany. In a matter of hours, small streams grew into raging rivers. Helicopters plucked stranded residents from roofs, Red Cross boats pulled people from windows and entire towns were devastated.
After 30 hours of continuous heavy rain, the Wupper – a tributary of the Rhine – grew from a small, sedate river to a raging monster. The inflow at the Wupper Dam was calculated to be three times higher than it had ever been measured – and estimated to be a once in 10,000-year occurrence.
At the 3M plant in Wuppertal, which makes membranes and filters for medical and industrial applications, the basements of buildings began to flood at about 6 p.m. The crisis team met and called together the plant’s maintenance craftsmen. Their goal: shut down operations to protect human life and to prevent as much damage as possible.
3M Plant Manager Manfred Pufahl was just returning from a vacation when his phone rang.
He consulted with the crisis team led by Dr. Martin Dittmar. Once it was clear the water level in the basement was rising continuously, the team made the call to switch off power in their production lines and then, to evacuate the site. The team worked through the night to prevent damage and, most importantly, to ensure nobody was hurt.
Machine operators helped shut down each machine line by line to save the expensive equipment and then went home for their safety. The crisis team, recognizing the risk of high-voltage incidents as the water continued to rise, shut down all power to the buildings.
Martin was at the plant when the power was cut. “All of a sudden it went dark around us. We were like an island! Only blue lights, helicopters and searchlights in the night sky and the roar of the Wupper,” he says. He then got a call from his wife who said their basement at home was flooding. Like many people on the crisis team, he was worried about the safety of his home as well as his place of work.
The team had often prepared for fires and water ingress as part of their training, but the amount of water they were dealing with was beyond their planning and their imagining. The water continued to rise throughout Thursday and into early Friday morning, July 15 and 16.
At about 10 a.m. on Friday, two platoons from the Agency for Technical Relief arrived and pumped out more than 25 million liters (6.6 million gallons) of water and mud. By Saturday, July 17, the site was dry again.
The next step for the team? Draw up a recovery plan to get back to making the most needed items. Manfred worked with the business and supply chain teams to prioritize what production equipment needed to get back online to make life-saving products. Manfred says, “People in the hospitals need our products so urgently. It’s not about where we earn the most, but where we help the most.”
Again, through strenuous work, determination and teamwork, by mid-September – just two short months after the historic flood – the 3M Wuppertal plant was back in operation.
“It makes me incredibly proud how we all tackled and managed this together,” says Martin.
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