Berlin, Germany – A bright blue painting sits upon the soaked debris scattered around the streets of Stolberg in western Germany, marking the studio of local artist Dennis Brandt.
Inside, more wreckage is piled in a heap and drenched sketches peel from the walls where floodwaters rose almost to the ceiling.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
“The town has been destroyed, everything really, streets and houses,” Brandt told Al Jazeera.
“My studio, 20 years of work, paintings, everything is gone. It was a painting school for children as well, now that’s gone too.”
Among his now-destroyed collection was a post-apocalyptic view of Stolberg that he had painted last year, which depicted high waters lapping around the town’s marketplace. Brandt could scarcely believe it had become a reality.
“Many of my friends no longer have a home,” he said. “It’s like a war.”
The scenes of devastation in Stolberg were replicated across swaths of western Germany and Belgium this week as floods devastated low-lying towns in the region.
In Germany, at least 156 people have died, making it the worst natural disaster to hit the country in almost 60 years.
The Ahrweiler district south of Cologne reported at least 110 dead, among them 12 residents of a care home for the disabled.
The tragedy has raised widespread concerns that German authorities have not done enough to prepare for increasingly frequent bouts of extreme weather, driven by climate change.
Between Tuesday and Thursday, an unusually static low-pressure zone dumped record levels of rainfall, with the worst-affected areas battered by intense storms over Wednesday night.
Some received as much as two months of rainfall in just 24 hours, Germany’s meteorological agency said.
Tens of thousands of emergency services and at least 850 soldiers have been deployed to affected areas, using helicopters, armoured vehicles and boats to rescue people trapped by the waters and search through the remains of destroyed buildings.
Rescue operations continue, but have been hampered by extensive damage to infrastructure, with many roads damaged or impassable, phone networks down in several areas, and more than 100,000 people without power as of Friday evening.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Erftstadt in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) on Saturday, offering consolation to those hit by tragedy.
“We mourn with those that have lost friends, acquaintances, family members,” he said. “Their fate is ripping our hearts apart.”
Armin Laschet, premier of NRW and favourite to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor after September’s elections, appeared alongside Steinmeier, and promised swift financial assistance to those affected.
“We will do everything so that what needs to be rebuilt can be rebuilt.”
Though floodwaters have receded in many areas, authorities remain on high alert.
About 700 residents from one district of Wassenberg, next to the Dutch border, were evacuated last night as a dam on the Ruhr broke.
Wassenberg Mayor Marcel Maurer said the situation was stabilising, but it was “too early to give the all-clear”.
Germany’s meteorological service has also issued weather alerts for south east Bavaria this weekend, where flooding is expected on the Danube.
Calm, narrow river
During his 20 years living in Erftstadt, Johannes Ahrends never had cause to worry about the calm, narrow river from which the town takes its name.
But this week’s deluge sent torrents rushing downstream, overwhelming flood defences and engulfing the town.
Homes were gutted by the rising waters and cars now lie scattered like toys amid the debris.
In nearby Blessem, the waters filled a gravel quarry, triggering a landslide that collapsed several houses and a historic castle.
Authorities rescued 170 people, many of them airlifted to safety.
No fatalities have yet been confirmed, though soldiers continue to search cars on an engulfed stretch of motorway nearby, where it is not known whether all drivers escaped.
Though Ahrends’ own home is located about 400 metres away from the flood, others were less fortunate.
“A friend of mine who lived in that area lost all of his clothes, his house, his car, everything,” he told Al Jazeera.
As soldiers arrived to help and the sounds of helicopters filled the air, locals began their own initiative, he said, setting up a Facebook group to coordinate and supply sandbags and food for their neighbours.
“We need new infrastructure, but in this area Blessem there’s a hole with a depth of 10 metres, so how can you ever recreate it? It’s so frightening and unbelievable that part of the town is really gone and there’s no chance to rebuild it.”
The disaster has prompted questions about whether Germany’s flood warning systems are adequate for increasingly unpredictable weather events in an ever-warming climate.
Emergency warnings and evacuation notices were issued when real-time river sensors detected a massive spike in water levels.
But smaller streams and tributaries not previously perceived as threats were not monitored as closely, Rhineland Palatinate’s environment minister acknowledged.
“Extreme rains were in the forecast, but not consistently at the right locations and in the right magnitudes,” said Andreas Fink, a climate researcher at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
“There were warnings, but villages along the small river in the Eifel were not evacuated.”
Fink said improved forecasting and evacuation procedures should be implemented quickly.
“Higher dykes and better infrastructure take time, but we need the decisions now,” he added.
The disaster has once again forced climate to the front of the political agenda just months before federal elections.
Though Merkel’s Christian Democrats have maintained a comfortable polling lead, her successor Laschet is widely seen as weak on climate protection for his support for coal mining and the auto industry – with an article in influential weekly Zeit on Friday describing him as a “Realpolitker on the run from reality”.
But for now campaigning has been suspended and politicians are focused on assisting the victims and mourning the dead.
Ahrends’ first concern is for the reconstruction of Erftstadt and the rehousing of his neighbours, but he knows that the town’s plight is a sign of an increasingly unpredictable future.
“There’s no doubt this is climate change,” he said.