Knee-deep in sewage: German rescuers rush to avoid health emergency in flood-prone areas
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the floods that devastated parts of Europe “terrifying” on Sunday after the region’s death toll rose to 188 and a district in Bavaria was hit by the weather extreme, write Ralph Brock and Romana Füssel in Berchtesgaden, Wolfgang Rattay in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Stephanie van den Berg in Amsterdam, François Murphy in Vienna and Matthias Inverardi in Düsseldorf.
Merkel promised quick financial help after visiting one of the regions worst hit by record rainfall and flooding that has left at least 157 people dead in Germany in recent days, in the country’s worst natural disaster in nearly six decades.
She also said governments should improve and speed up their efforts to combat the impact of climate change just days after Europe presented a package of measures towards “net zero” emissions by the middle of the century.
“It’s terrifying,” she told residents of the small town of Adenau, in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. “The German language can hardly describe the devastation that has taken place.”
As efforts continued to locate the missing, devastation continued on Sunday when a district of Bavaria in southern Germany was hit by flash floods that killed at least one person.
The roads were turned into rivers, some vehicles were washed away and swathes of land were buried under thick mud in Berchtesgadener Land. Hundreds of rescuers were looking for survivors in the Austrian border district.
“We were not prepared for this,” said Berchtesgadener Land district administrator Bernhard Kern, adding that the situation had “drastically” deteriorated on Saturday evening, leaving emergency services little time to act. .
Around 110 people were killed in the worst-hit district of Ahrweiler, south of Cologne. More bodies are expected to be found there as the floodwaters recede, police say.
The European floods, which began on Wednesday, mainly affected the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate, North Rhine-Westphalia as well as parts of Belgium. Entire communities have been cut off, without electricity or communications.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, at least 46 people have died. The death toll in Belgium rose to 31 on Sunday.
The scale of the floods means they could shake up the German general election in September next year.
North Rhine-Westphalia Prime Minister Armin Laschet, CDU party candidate to replace Merkel, apologized for laughing in the background while German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier addressed the media after having visited the devastated town of Erftstadt.
The German government will prepare more than 300 million euros ($ 354 million) in immediate aid and billions of euros to repair collapsed houses, streets and bridges, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told the weekly Bild am Sonntag.
“There is enormous damage and it is clear: those who have lost their businesses, their homes, cannot stem the losses alone.”
There could also be a short-term payment of 10,000 euros for businesses affected by the impact of flooding as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told the newspaper.
Scientists, who have long said climate change will lead to heavier downpours, said it would take several more weeks to determine its role in the relentless rainfall.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the link to climate change was clear.
In Belgium, which will organize a day of national mourning on Tuesday, 163 people are still missing or unreachable. The crisis center said water levels were dropping and a huge cleanup was underway. The army was dispatched to the eastern town of Pepinster, where a dozen buildings collapsed, to search for more casualties.
Around 37,000 households were without electricity, and Belgian authorities said drinking water supplies were also a major concern.
Emergency service officials in the Netherlands said the situation had stabilized somewhat in the southern part of the province of Limburg, where tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in recent days, although the part north is still on high alert.
“In the north, they are closely monitoring the dikes and will maintain them,” Jos Teeuwen, of the regional water authority, told a press conference on Sunday.
In South Limburg, the authorities are still concerned about the safety of traffic infrastructure such as high-water roads and bridges.
The Netherlands has so far reported only property damage from the flooding and no deaths or missing.
In Hallein, an Austrian town near Salzburg, powerful floodwaters ravaged the city center on Saturday evening when the Kothbach River overflowed, but no injuries were reported.
Many parts of the province of Salzburg and neighboring provinces remain on high alert, with rains expected to continue on Sunday. The province of West Tyrol reported that water levels in some areas were at levels not seen in more than 30 years.
Parts of Switzerland have remained on flood alert, although the threat posed by some of the most threatened water bodies like Lake Lucerne and the Aar in Bern has eased.
($ 1 = € 0.8471)