BERLIN — Devastating floods have torn through entire villages and killed at least 153 people in Europe, most of them in western Germany where stunned emergency services were still combing the wreckage on Saturday.
Police said that more than 90 people are now known to have died in western Germany’s Ahrweiler county, one of the worst-hit areas, and more casualties are feared. On Friday, authorities gave a death toll of 63 for Rhineland-Palatinate state, where Ahrweiler is located.
Another 43 people were confirmed dead in neighboring North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany’s most populous. Belgian broadcaster RTBF reported that the death toll in Belgium rose to 27 on Saturday.
By Saturday, waters were receding across much of the affected regions, but officials feared that more bodies might be found in cars and trucks that were swept away.
Streets and houses were submerged by water in some areas, while cars were left overturned on soaked streets after flood waters passed. Some districts were completely cut off.
In Germany’s worst-hit regions of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, residents who fled the deluge were gradually returning to their homes and scenes of desolation.
“Within minutes, a wave was in the house,” said baker Cornelia Schloesser of the torrents that arrived overnight Wednesday in the town of Schuld, carrying her century-old family business with it.
“It’s all been a nightmare for 48 hours, we’re going round in circles here but we can’t do anything,” she said, surveying the heaps of twisted metal, broken glass and wood that have piled up at her former storefront.
Roger Lewentz, interior minister for Rheinland-Palatinate, told Bild the death toll was likely to rise as emergency services continued to search the affected areas over the coming days.
“When emptying cellars or pumping out cellars, we keep coming across people who have lost their lives in these floods,” he said.
Adding to the devastation, several more people were feared dead in a landslide in the town of Erftstadt in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) triggered by the floods.
Calling the floods “possibly the most catastrophic our country has ever seen,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo declared Tuesday a day of national mourning.
Luxembourg and the Netherlands were also hammered by heavy rains, inundating many areas and forcing thousands to be evacuated in the city of Maastricht.
Fearing the worst
In Germany’s hard-hit Ahrweiler district in Rhineland-Palatinate, several houses collapsed completely, drawing comparisons to the aftermath of a tsunami.
“I fear that we will only see the full extent of the disaster in the coming days,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said late Thursday from Washington, where she met with US President Joe Biden.
“My empathy and my heart go out to all of those who in this catastrophe lost their loved ones, or who are still worrying about the fate of people still missing.”
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier planned to travel Saturday to Erftstadt, southwest of Cologne, where a harrowing rescue effort unfolded on Friday as people were trapped when the ground gave way and their homes collapsed. Officials feared that some people didn’t manage to escape, but by Saturday morning no casualties had been confirmed.
In Ahrweiler, around 1,300 people were unaccounted for, although local authorities told Bild the high number was likely due to damaged phone networks.
Lewentz told local media that up to 60 people were believed to be missing “and when you haven’t heard from people for such a long time… you have to fear the worst.”
Billions in damage
Gerd Landsberg, head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, said the cost of the damage was likely to run into “billions of euros.”
In Belgium, the army has been sent to four of the country’s 10 provinces to help with rescue and evacuations.
The swollen Meuse river “is going to look very dangerous for Liege,” a nearby city of 200,000 people, warned Wallonia regional president Elio Di Rupo.
In Switzerland, lakes and rivers were also swelling after heavy overnight rainfall. In Lucerne in particular, Lake Lucerne had begun to flood the city center.
Some parts of western Europe received up to two months’ worth of rainfall in two days on soil that was already near saturation, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
But there was some improvement Friday as the water level began to fall back.
The severe storms have put climate change back at the center of Germany’s election campaign ahead of a September 26 poll marking the end of Merkel’s 16 years in power.
Speaking in Berlin, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Germany would “only be able to curb extreme weather situations if we engage in a determined fight against climate change.”
The country “must prepare much better” in future, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said, adding that “this extreme weather is a consequence of climate change.”
Because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, climate change increases the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.
In urban areas with poor drainage and buildings located in flood zones, the damage can be severe.
North Rhine-Westphalia premier Armin Laschet, the conservative running to succeed Merkel, called for “speeding up” global efforts to fight climate change, underlining the link between global warming and extreme weather.