The death toll from devastating floods in Europe soared to at least 126 on Friday, most in western Germany where emergency responders were frantically searching for missing people.
Unsuspecting residents were caught completely off guard by the torrent dubbed the “flood of death” by Germany’s top-selling daily Bild.
Streets and houses were submerged by water in some areas, while cars were left overturned on soaked streets after flood waters passed. Some districts were completely cut off from the outside world.
“Everything was under water within 15 minutes,” Agron Berischa, a 21-year-old decorator from Bad Neuenahr in Rhineland-Palatinate state, told AFP.
“Our flat, our office, our neighbours’ houses, everywhere was under water.”
Residents were shocked by the damage as floodwaters continued to rise overnight.
“We rushed home and found ourselves waist-deep in water. And overnight another 50 centimetres were added,” said Christoph Buecken in Eschweiler in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).
Adding to the devastation, several more people were feared dead in a landslide in northern Germany on Friday triggered by floods.
Hundreds were unaccounted for in the country, while the death toll in Belgium jumped to 23 with more than 21,000 people left without electricity in one region.
Luxembourg and the Netherlands were also hammered by heavy rains, inundating many areas and forcing thousands to be evacuated in the city of Maastricht.
Fearing the worst
In Germany’s hard-hit Ahrweiler district in Rhineland-Palatinate, several houses collapsed completely, drawing comparisons to the aftermath of a tsunami.
At least 24 people were confirmed dead in Euskirchen, one of the worst-affected towns just to the north.
“I fear that we will only see the full extent of the disaster in the coming days,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said late Thursday from Washington, where she met with President Joe Biden.
“My empathy and my heart go out to all of those who in this catastrophe lost their loved ones, or who are still worrying about the fate of people still missing.”
The number of casualties in Rhineland-Palatinate has reached 60, bringing the national toll to at least 103, authorities said Friday.
In Ahrweiler, around 1,300 people were unaccounted for, although local authorities told Bild the high number was likely due to damaged phone networks.
Regional interior minister Roger Lewentz told local media that up to 60 people were believed to be missing, “and when you haven’t heard from people for such a long time… you have to fear the worst”.
“The number of victims will likely keep rising in the coming days,” he added.
Billions in damage
Several people were dead and missing after a landslide in Erftstadt-Blessem in NRW, local officials said Friday.
“Houses were largely swept away by the water and some collapsed,” the Cologne local authority said on Twitter, while a spokeswoman for the local government told AFP there were “confirmed” deaths.
Gerd Landsberg, head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, said the cost of the damage was likely to run into “billions of euros”.
In Belgium, the army has been sent to four of the country’s 10 provinces to help with rescue and evacuations.
The swollen Meuse river “is going to look very dangerous for Liege”, a nearby city of 200,000 people, warned Wallonia regional president Elio Di Rupo.
In Switzerland, lakes and rivers were also swelling after heavy overnight rainfall. In Lucerne in particular, Lake Lucerne had begun to flood the city centre.
Some parts of western Europe received up to two months’ worth of rainfall in two days on soil that was already near saturation, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
The severe storms have put climate change back at the centre of Germany’s election campaign ahead of a September 26 poll marking the end of Merkel’s 16 years in power.
Speaking in Berlin on Friday, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Germany would “only be able to curb extreme weather situations if we engage in a determined fight against climate change”.
The country “must prepare much better” in future, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said, adding that “this extreme weather is a consequence of climate change”.
Because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, climate change increases the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.
In urban areas with poor drainage and buildings located in flood zones, the damage can be severe.
North Rhine-Westphalia premier Armin Laschet, the conservative running to succeed Merkel, called for “speeding up” global efforts to fight climate change, underlining the link between global warming and extreme weather.