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.
With the death toll in Germany at 144 four days into the disaster, rescuers said far more bodies were likely to be found in sodden cellars and collapsed homes.
“We have to assume we will find further victims,” said Carolin Weitzel, mayor of Erftstadt, where a terrifying landslide was triggered by the floods.
In Germany’s worst-hit states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, residents who fled the deluge were gradually returning to their homes and scenes of desolation on Saturday.
In Schuld, one of the towns worst hit by the flooding, scenes of utter devastation. Some houses were entirely swept away, others completely gutted up to the second floor. Chancellor Angela Merkel will pay a visit here today. #germanyfloods #Hochwasserkatastrophe pic.twitter.com/rodMtjwUd1
— Giulia Saudelli (@giuliasaudelli) July 18, 2021
“Within minutes, a wave was in the house,” baker Cornelia Schloesser told AFP of the torrents that arrived in the town of Schuld, carrying her century-old family business with them.
“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.
Everything – everyone – is covered in thick, sticky mud pic.twitter.com/CZGQQ5WkfY
— jenny hill (@jennyhillBBC) July 17, 2021
Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to visit the hard-hit town of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate on Sunday, her first trip to the flood zones since returning from a White House visit on Friday.
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier meanwhile was surveying the damage in Erftstadt in NRW on Saturday, where a landslide was triggered by the floods.
“We are mourning with all those who lost friends, acquaintances or family members,” he said.
Soldiers could be seen wading waist-deep in muddy water in Erftstadt as they attempted to clear the streets and search for victims.
Many cars were still submerged, their doors flung open by those who managed to escape.
“We have broken highways, collapsed bridges, completely broken roads. It may be months, years before life in Erftstadt and the surrounding area resumes as we knew it,” said Elmar Mettke, a spokesman for the local fire service.
At least 98 of the victims lived in the Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate, Koblenz police said in an updated toll, including 12 residents of a home for the disabled who drowned in the rising waters.
In neighbouring Belgium, the death toll jumped to 24 with many people still missing and more than 21,000 left without electricity in one region.
Prime Minister Alexander de Croo was heading for the scene of what he has called “unprecedented” flood damage. He has declared Tuesday a day of official 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.
A burst dam in Germany’s Heinsberg district 65 kilometres (40 miles) southwest of Düsseldorf overnight prompted the emergency evacuation of more than 700 residents.
In some 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,” said Tim Kurzbach, 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, and most roads in the submerged Ahr Valley are out of service.
Roger Lewentz, interior minister for Rhineland-Palatinate, told local media up to 60 people were believed to be missing. More than 600 were injured.
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.
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.
President Steinmeier urged a more “determined” battle against global warming in light of the disaster, ahead of a visit to Erftstadt Saturday.
Armin Laschet from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the frontrunner to succeed the veteran chancellor, spoke of “a disaster of historic proportions”.
News magazine Der Spiegel said 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.
“People want to know how politicians will lead them through something like this.”
German reinsurance giant Munich Re said nations would have to expect rising “frequency and intensity” of natural disasters due to the climate emergency, calling for preventive action “which, in the final analysis, will be less costly”.