Record rainfall in western Germany caused rivers to burst their banks, destroying homes and killing several people.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has described the flooding that ravaged parts of her country as “surreal” and “terrifying”, as the death toll from floods in Western Europe climbed above 180 with dozens still missing.
Merkel promised on Sunday swift financial aid after visiting one of the areas worst affected by the record rainfall and floods that have killed at least 157 people in Germany alone in recent days, in the country’s worst natural disaster in almost six decades.
“It is terrifying,” she told residents of the small town of Adenau in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, one of the two hardest-hit regions in western Germany. “The German language can barely describe the devastation that’s taken place.”
“Germany is a strong country,” Merkel said. “We will stand up to this force of nature, in the short term, but also in the medium and long term.”
Merkel toured Schuld, a village on a tight curve of the Ahr River in western Germany where many buildings were damaged or destroyed by rapidly rising floodwaters on Wednesday night. Authorities said some people are still missing and they fear the toll may still rise.
She also called for a redoubling of political focus on curbing climate change. “We have to hurry up, we have to speed up the fight against climate change,” Merkel said.
Focus has now shifted to southern Germany and neighbouring Austria, which remain on alert amid heavy rains.
Roads were turned into rivers, some vehicles were swept away and swaths of land were buried under thick mud in Berchtesgadener Land in southern Germany. Hundreds of rescue workers were searching for survivors in the district, which borders Austria.
In the Austrian region of Salzburg, powerful floodwaters tore through the town centre on Saturday evening as the Kothbach river burst its banks, but no injuries were reported.
Parts of Switzerland remained on flood alert, though the threat posed by some of the most at-risk bodies of water like Lake Lucerne and Bern’s Aare river has eased.
The European floods, which began on Wednesday, have mainly hit the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate, North Rhine-Westphalia as well as parts of Belgium. Entire communities have been cut off, without power or communications.
In the North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany’s most populous, 46 people were killed, including four firefighters. Belgium confirmed 27 deaths.
The German government will be readying more than 300 million euros ($354m) in immediate relief and billions of euros to fix collapsed houses, streets and bridges, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told the weekly newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
“There is huge damage and that much is clear: those who lost their businesses, their houses, cannot stem the losses alone.”
There could also be a 10,000-euro ($11,805) short-term payment for businesses affected by the impact of the floods as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told the paper.
According to Al Jazeera’s Adam Raney, reporting from the village of Schuld in Germany, “everywhere you look, you see destruction”.
“People’s homes [are] in total disarray,” Raney said.
“We’ve been seeing people … take bucket after bucket of mud, debris from their homes. They seem angry [and] when we asked them what they want from the chancellor, they said their problems are too big right now, to talk about silly political things.”
Scientists, who have long said that climate change will lead to heavier downpours, said it would still take several weeks to determine its role in these relentless rainfalls.
In Belgium, which will hold a national day of mourning on Tuesday, water levels were falling on Sunday and the cleanup operation was under way. The military was sent into the eastern town of Pepinster, where a dozen buildings have collapsed, to search for any further victims.
Tens of thousands of people are without electricity and Belgian authorities said the supply of clean drinking water was also a big concern.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo visited the flooded areas of Rochefort and Pepinster together on Saturday.
“Europe is with you,” von der Leyen tweeted afterwards. “We are with you in mourning and we will be with you in rebuilding.”
Today I went to Rochefort and Pepinster. I saw the devastation caused by the floods.
My heart ached as I met people who have lost their homes, the savings of a lifetime.
I told them: Europe is with you. We are with you in mourning and we will be with you in rebuilding. pic.twitter.com/VLcHKk8hKo
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) July 17, 2021
Emergency services officials in the Netherlands said the situation had somewhat stabilised in the southern part of Limburg province, where tens of thousands were evacuated in recent days, although the northern part was still on high alert.
“In the north, they are tensely monitoring the dykes and whether they will hold,” Jos Teeuwen of the regional water authority told a press conference on Sunday.
In southern Limburg, authorities are still concerned about the safety of traffic infrastructure such as roads and bridges battered by the high water.
The Netherlands has so far only reported property damage from the flooding and no dead or missing people.
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen reporting from Nieuw-Bergen, The Netherlands, said “the danger is still here”.
“The water is still at a very high level, and it’s predicted that it’ll remain like this for a couple of days, and hopefully then it’ll recede,” Vaessen said.
“But of course, this is not a part of the Netherlands where people thought it was going to be flooded, this part is actually above the sea level, and most other parts of the Netherlands are below, but still the river has totally burst out of its banks,” she added.