The German leader has expressed shock after visiting the flood-hit region and called for action against climate change.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has rejected accusations the country’s government failed to sufficiently warn people of last week’s devastating floods as political recriminations over the deadly natural disaster escalated.
Deluges have wreaked havoc in parts of Western Europe since last Wednesday, with the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, as well as parts of Belgium, among the worst-hit.
A total of 117 people are now confirmed to have died in Rhineland-Palatinate, with 47 victims in neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia and one in Bavaria. Many others remain missing.
At least 31 people also died in Belgium in the floods, and later torrential rain caused havoc in southern Germany and several neighbouring countries.
The high death toll, which is expected to rise, has raised questions about why so many people seemed to have been surprised by the flash flooding.
Several opposition politicians have criticised the government’s handling of the crisis, suggesting the number of fatalities recorded so far reveals serious shortcomings in Germany’s flood preparedness.
Michael Theurer, a senior member of the opposition centre-right Free Democrats Party, said in an interview with news agency DPA that the toll revealed a “systemic failure” in the emergency response.
Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, chief of the left-wing Linke party, meanwhile called for Seehofer to step down.
But speaking during a visit to the flood-ravaged town of Euskirchen in North Rhine-Westphalia, the interior minister fended off criticism of the national government’s response to the floods.
He told reporters that the German National Meteorological Service (DWD) issues warnings to Germany’s 16 states and from there to districts and communities that decide at a local level how to respond.
Under Germany’s federal system, it is up to the 16 regional states to organise responses to flood alerts and coordinate efforts with the civil protection office and the fire brigade.
“It would be completely inconceivable for such a catastrophe to be managed centrally from any one place. You need local knowledge,” Seehofer said.
“It’s not Berlin that declares a state of emergency, that is done locally,” he added, before stating that criticism of the emergency response was “cheap election campaign rhetoric”.
Accompanying Seehofer on his tour of flood-stricken areas, disaster management agency head Armin Schuster said that warning systems had functioned perfectly: more than 150 flood warning messages had been sent.
The devastation of the floods, attributed by meteorologists to the effects of climate change, could shake up Germany’s federal election in September, which until now had seen little discussion of climate.
Al Jazeera’s Adam Raney, reporting from Arloff in North Rhine-Westphalia, said there was “some scepticism” among the local community that the government headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel had “prepared the people enough”.
“We see some inroads coming from other parties, like the Greens, who are hoping to capitalise on this moment – this huge disaster that the people here are saying shouldn’t have happened in a country so rich and so powerful in the heart of Europe,” he said.
Annalena Baerbock, the Green party candidate to replace Merkel as chancellor after the September 26 elections, on Monday called for a more centralised approach.
“In my view, the federal government must play a much stronger coordinating role,” she told the ARD broadcaster.
The worst of the flooding saw entire communities cut off without power or communications.
Residents were trapped in their homes by fast-rising floodwaters and a number of houses collapsed, leaving what Merkel on Sunday described as “terrifying” scenes.
The DWD weather service had warned on Monday last week that heavy rain was heading to western Germany and that flooding was very likely.
On Wednesday morning, it said on Twitter that the risk of flooding was increasing and called on the population to seek guidance from local authorities.
The German government is now readying a relief package for hard-hit communities in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, and also in Bavaria and Saxony, where there were new floods over the weekend.
One government source told Reuters on Monday that immediate relief worth about 400 million euros ($340 million) was being discussed, half of which would be paid by the federal government and half by the states.
The relief package, which is also expected to include billions of euros for longer-term rebuilding efforts, is due to be presented to the cabinet on Wednesday.