© Reuters. Members of the German Armed Forces, surrounded by partially submerged cars, wade through the flood after heavy rainfall in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, 17 July 2021. REUTERS / Thilo Schmuelgen
By Petra Wischgoll and David Sahl
ERFTSTADT, Germany / WASSENBERG, Germany (Reuters) – The death toll in devastating floods in western Germany and Belgium rose to at least 168 on Saturday after rivers and flash floods collapsed houses and tore up roads and power lines this week.
In the worst natural disaster in Germany for more than half a century, 141 people died in the floods. According to the police, these included around 98 in the Cologne district of Ahrweiler south of Cologne.
Hundreds of people were still missing or inaccessible as several areas were inaccessible due to the high water level and communication was still interrupted in some places.
Local residents and business owners found it difficult to pick up the pieces in the battered cities.
“Everything has been completely destroyed. You can’t see the landscape,” says Michael Lang, owner of a wine shop in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Ahrweiler, and fights back tears.
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Erftstadt in North Rhine-Westphalia, where at least 43 people were killed in the disaster.
“We mourn with those who have lost friends, acquaintances and family members,” he said. “Your fate tears our hearts apart.”
After a dam breach in the city of Wassenberg near Cologne, around 700 residents were evacuated late on Friday, the authorities said.
However, Wassenberg’s Mayor Marcel Maurer said that the water level had stabilized since the night. “It is too early to give the all-clear, but we are cautiously optimistic,” he said.
The Steinbachtal dam in western Germany remained at risk of breaking, according to the authorities, after around 4,500 people were evacuated from houses downstream.
Steinmeier said it will take weeks before the full damage, which is expected to require billions of euros in reconstruction funds, can be quantified.
Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and candidate of the ruling CDU in the federal election in September, said he would talk to Finance Minister Olaf Scholz about financial support in the coming days.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was supposed to travel to Rhineland-Palatinate on Sunday, the state of the devastated village to blame.
In Belgium, the death toll rose to 27, according to the national crisis center that coordinates the relief effort there.
It added that 103 people were “missing or unavailable”. Some were probably unavailable because they could not charge their cell phones or were in hospital without IDs, the center said.
TURN OFF COMMUNITIES
In the past few days, the floods, which mainly affected the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia as well as Ostbelgien, cut off entire communities from electricity and communications.
RWE, Germany’s largest electricity producer, said on Saturday that its Inden opencast mine and the Weisweiler coal-fired power plant were severely affected and, once the situation has stabilized, run with lower capacity.
The utility expects damage in the mid double-digit million euro range.
In the southern Belgian provinces of Luxemburg and Namur, the authorities rushed to supply households without a clean drinking water supply with drinking water.
In the hardest-hit parts of Belgium, the water level was slowly falling, allowing residents to sort out damaged possessions. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited some areas on Saturday afternoon.
The Belgian rail network operator Infrabel published plans to repair lines, some of which would not be operational again until the end of August.
HIGH WARNING IN THE NETHERLANDS
The emergency services in the Netherlands also remained on high alert, as overflowing rivers threatened cities and villages throughout the southern province of Limburg.
Tens of thousands of residents in the region have been evacuated in the past two days, while soldiers, fire brigades and volunteers worked frantically all Friday night to enforce levees and prevent flooding.
The Dutch have so far escaped a disaster the size of their neighbors and no casualties were reported as of Saturday morning.
Scientists have long said that climate change will lead to more rainfall. However, determining its role in these relentless rains will take at least several weeks, scientists said Friday.