Historic flood engulfs famous Belgian chocolate factory

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Chaudfontaine (Belgium) (AFP)

As the floodwaters receded into the river valleys of industrial eastern Belgium, the smell of cocoa mingled with the stench of spilled fuel oil and the mud of the river.

The Galler factory, home to one of the country’s iconic luxury chocolate brands, is among many businesses temporarily shut down by the unprecedented flooding.

Built on the banks of the now bubbling Vesdre in Vaux-sous-Chevremont in the commune of Chaudfontaine outside the city of Liège, the factory ships high-end bars to aficionados as far as Japan.

In Belgium, which proclaims itself the world chocolate capital, it is accredited to supply the royal court of Philippe, King of the Belgians, alongside Godiva and Leonidas.

But, after a week of torrential rains that sent waves of water crashing into the narrow valleys of this former coal mining area near the German border, part of the factory facade collapsed.

– Take stock

Tools and workstations are swept in piles, and muddy water has stained the walls six feet (1.8 meters) above its normal level.

“It’s time to take stock,” said Valérie Stefenatto, the 32-year-old communications manager, as she walked around in rubber boots, phone in hand.

“The priority now is to secure the factory and put the electricity back on, to see if the machines are still working or not.”

Tubs of raw ingredients had been knocked over or burst, and the smell of chocolate hung in the air.

At Galler and other companies in the south and east of the country, questions will be asked.

Why have the warnings of meteorologists and climatologists gone unheeded? Why has the government not taken action?

Here, when the river level began to rise on Wednesday, staff piled sandbags and shut down production, but had no way of predicting the wall of water that struck Thursday.

“The plant has been there since 1976. We have never experienced a flood in Vaux-sous-Chevremont,” sighs Stefenatto.

Things could have been worse. Stocks of finished chocolate were stored in a depot on higher ground, north of Liège, and the wider commune saw five residents killed and dozens left homeless.

“We have colleagues who have lost everything,” Stefenatto said, as exhausted workers found plastic chairs in the parking lot. “Getting back on your feet will require focusing on morale.”

– Plans pending –

But a delivery truck and its 10-meter container were thrown onto the loading area, and it is too early to say when the 60 employees will be able to resume work.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Galler produced 1,700 tonnes of chocolate per year and generated more than 30 million euros. It had ambitious expansion plans, supported by a Liège consortium and by foreign investors.

“We don’t know yet how long it will take. One, two, three months? It will depend on whether we decide to focus on certain markets, Belgian or European,” Stefenatto told AFP.

The storms have now moved east and south, devastating Germany and threatening Austria’s Alpine valleys. The final economic and human toll in Belgium, where at least 27 died, is not yet known.

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