BERLIN, July 18: The death toll from flooding in Western Europe climbed above 180 on Sunday after rescue workers dug deeper into debris left by receding waters.
Police put the toll from the hard-hit Ahrweiler area of western Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate state at more than 110 and said they feared the number may still rise. In neighboring North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany’s most populous, 45 people were confirmed dead, including four firefighters. And Belgium has confirmed 27 casualties.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was due to visit Schuld, a village near Ahrweiler that was devastated by the flooding, later Sunday. Her visit comes after Germany’s president went to the area on Saturday and made clear that it will need long-term support.
Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said he will propose a package of immediate aid at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, telling the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that more than 300 million euros ($354 million) will be needed. And he said that officials must start setting up a rebuilding program which, from experience with previous flooding, will be in the billions of euros.
Although rain has stopped in the worst-affected areas of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, storms and downpours have persisted in other parts of western and central Europe. There was flooding Saturday night in the German-Czech border area, across the country from where last week’s floods hit, and in Germany’s southeastern corner and over the border in Austria.
Some 65 people were evacuated in Germany’s Berchtesgaden area after the Ache River swelled. At least one person was killed.
A flash flood swept through the nearby Austrian town of Hallein late Saturday, but there were no reports of casualties.
Heavy rain and storms caused serious damage in several parts of Austria.
Climate scientists say the link between extreme weather and global warming is unmistakable and the urgency to do something about climate change undeniable.
Scientists can’t yet say for sure whether climate change caused the flooding, but they insist that it certainly exacerbates the extreme weather that has been on show around the world.
“Surreal, Eerie Situation”: German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits flood-affected areas
Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday that she was horrified by the “surreal” devastation in the flood-ravaged region of Germany, as the count in western Europe reached at least 184 people dead with dozens still missing.
Wearing hiking boots and offering pandemic-safe fist bumps to rescue workers, the veteran leader walked through the village of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate state, one of the two hardest-hit regions in western Germany.
Merkel, who is retiring from politics after September’s elections, listened to the accounts of residents where the swollen Ahr river swept away houses and left debris piled high in the streets.
“It is a surreal, eerie situation,” a visibly shaken Merkel told reporters, as she pledged quick aid to rebuild.
“It is shocking — I can almost say that the German language doesn’t have words for the destruction that’s been wreaked.”
At least 157 people have died since Wednesday in Germany’s worst flooding in living memory, police said.
In Rhineland-Palatinate state alone, authorities reported 110 dead and 670 injured.
At least 27 people have lost their lives in neighbouring Belgium.
Rescue crews were sifting through rubble to find victims and survivors, often in dangerous conditions. Police deployed speedboats and divers to recover bodies swept away in the torrents.
Historic heavy rainfall also battered Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
As the waters began to recede in Rhineland-Palatinate and neighbouring North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), concern shifted south to Germany’s Upper Bavaria region, where incessant rains inundated basements and led rivers and creeks late Saturday to burst their banks.
One person died in Berchtesgadener Land, a spokeswoman for the Bavarian district told AFP.
In the eastern state of Saxony, authorities reported a “significant risk situation” in several villages.
In Austria, emergency workers in the Salzburg and Tyrol regions were on high alert for flooding. The scenic town centre of Hallein was under water.
Pope Francis expressed his “nearness” to the people of the stricken regions.
“May the Lord welcome the ones who passed away and comfort their loved ones, may he sustain the efforts of everyone who are helping those who have suffered serious damage,” he said Sunday.
‘Sorry’ for laughing
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz pledged more than 300 million euros ($354 million) in emergency aid for people who lost homes and businesses, with the cabinet to approve a much larger reconstruction package on Wednesday.
The disaster has increasingly taken on political overtones in Germany, which heads to the polls on September 26 for a general election that will mark the end of Merkel’s 16 years in power.
With experts saying climate change is making extreme weather events more likely, candidates vying to succeed her have called for more climate action.
Armin Laschet, the premier of hard-hit North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) state and frontrunner in the race, said efforts to tackle global warming should be “speeded up”.
But Laschet scored an own goal Saturday when he was filmed laughing in the devastated town of Erftstadt in NRW, where a landslide was triggered by the floods.
In the footage, Laschet could be seen chatting and joking in the background as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a statement expressing his sympathies to grieving families.
“Laschet laughs while the country cries,” wrote the top-selling Bild daily.
Laschet later apologised on Twitter for the “inappropriate” moment.
Divers, armoured vehicles
The scale of the flood impact was gradually becoming clear in Germany, with damaged buildings being assessed, some of which will have to be demolished, and efforts under way to restore gas, electricity and telephone services.
In some areas, soldiers used armoured vehicles to clear the debris clogging streets.
Local authorities in NRW and Rhineland-Palatinate said dozens of people remain unaccounted for across both states.
They have stressed, however, that disruption to communication networks made a precise assessment difficult, and the real number of missing could be lower.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, I was born here, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Gregor Degen, a baker in the devastated spa town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, near Schuld.
Across the border in Belgium, the death count jumped to 27 with many people still missing.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Prime Minister Alexander de Croo visited the flooded areas of Rochefort and Pepinster together on Saturday. (AP/AFP)