At least 160 dead, hundreds missing in devastating European floods

Submerged vehicles are seen on federal highway B265 in Erftstadt, Germany, on July 17, 2021.
Submerged vehicles are seen on federal highway B265 in Erftstadt, Germany, on July 17, 2021. © Sebastien Bozon, AFP

The death toll from disastrous flooding in western Europe rose above 160 on Saturday as rescue workers toiled to clear up the devastation and prevent further damage.


On Saturday, authorities gave a death toll of 98 for Rhineland-Palatinate state, where Ahrweiler, one of the worst-hit areas, is located. Another 43 people were confirmed dead in neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia state. Hundreds of people are still missing. 

Western Germany has suffered the most brutal impact of the deluge that also pummelled Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, leaving streets and homes submerged in muddy water and isolating entire communities.

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.

Immense task  

In the affected areas, firefighters, local officials and soldiers, some driving tanks, have begun the colossal work of clearing the piles of debris clogging the streets.

“The task is immense,” admitted the mayor of Solingen, a city in the south of the Ruhr area.

The real scale of the disaster is only now becoming clear, with damaged buildings being assessed, some of which will have to be demolished, and efforts under way to restore gas, electricity and telephone services.

The disruption to communication networks has complicated efforts to assess the number still missing.

“We have to assume we will find further victims,” said Carolin Weitzel, mayor of Erftstadt in North Rhine-Westphalia, which experienced a terrifying landslide triggered by the floods.

The government has said it is working to set up a special aid fund, with the cost of damage expected to reach several billion euros.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who returned Friday from a trip to Washington overshadowed by the disaster, vowed to provide “short- and long-term support from the government” to stricken municipalities.

She has not yet travelled to the scene from the capital Berlin, but her spokesman said Friday she was in close contact with regional leaders about “a visit soon to the scene of the catastrophe”.

Belgian toll expected to continue to rise

Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander de Croo on Saturday went to the scene of what he has branded “unprecedented” flood damage in the country's east, as officials warned the death toll would increase.

De Croo was to be joined by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in the river valleys of eastern Belgium near the border with her native Germany, also badly hit.

Belgium's death toll climbed to 27 on Saturday, with 103 people still missing.

The floods descended on densely inhabited valleys in the Meuse region on Thursday after days of intense rain.

By Saturday, the skies were clearing and the downpour had abated, but the retreating waters left scenes of devastation across 120 local government areas.

Police were going door to door, checking on residents, and De Croo has declared Tuesday – the eve of Belgium’s national day – a day of official mourning.   

Focus on climate change

The devastating floods have put climate change back at the centre of Germany’s election campaign ahead of a September 26 poll marking the end of Merkel’s 16 years in power.

Germany “must prepare much better” in future, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said, adding that “this extreme weather is a consequence of climate change”.

Armin Laschet from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the frontrunner to succeed her after the election, spoke of “a disaster of historic proportions” for his state of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate.

Greens candidate Annalena Baerbock broke off her summer holiday to head to the afflicted area while the Social Democrats’ flag bearer, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, promised “unbureaucratic aid”.

News magazine Der Spiegel said the link between global warming and extreme weather events like the massive rainfall in recent days that caused the floods would train a spotlight on the candidates’ response to climate change.

“There will be affirmations in the coming days that it’s not an issue for the campaign but of course it is,” it said, noting the expected rising frequency of natural disasters due to the climate emergency.

“People want to know how politicians will lead them through something like this.”

Luxembourg and the Netherlands were also hammered by heavy rains, inundating many areas and forcing thousands to be evacuated in the city of Maastricht.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel called the situation in many parts of his country “dramatic” and said the financial damage was “huge”.

He pledged an initial package of €50 million ($59 million) in immediate aid to citizens who suffered losses in the floods.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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