Flood-battered Germany approves major relief package

Billions of euros are needed to rebuild homes, businesses and vital infrastructure

Emergency crews stand by in Mayschoss, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, after devastating floods. AFP
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Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet approved an emergency aid package on Wednesday for flood-stricken regions of Germany and said billions of euros would be needed to rebuild homes, businesses and vital infrastructure.

A week into the region's worst flooding disaster in living memory, which has killed at least 172 people in Germany and 31 Belgium, the right-left "grand coalition" government unlocked about €400 million ($470m) in immediate relief.

Half will come from the federal government and the rest from the 16 regional states, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said.

"We will make sure that life can go on," Mr Scholz told reporters in Berlin.

He said the coming months would bring a "billions-strong reconstruction programme to clear the devastation and restore infrastructure", including roads, bridges and railway lines.

"We will rebuild - rebuild businesses, rebuild factories, rebuild buildings," he said. The government said it would apply for assistance from an EU solidarity fund set aside for natural catastrophes.

The damage caused by the floods is likely to cost the insurance sector up to €5 billion ($5.9bn), the GDV industry association said, calling the disaster "one of the most devastating storms in recent history".

However, the real cost is likely to be much higher as less than half of Germans in the affected states are insured against heavy rain and floods, the association said.

Power and drinking water supplies were compromised in many areas, while mobile communication networks were down.

Hubert Pauly, head of the vintners association in the Ahr Valley, told business magazine WirtschaftsWoche that bottles and barrels of red wine valued at about €50m were lost.

On Wednesday, the regional government in Belgium's hard-hit Wallonia region pledged a total of €2bn in reconstruction aid after what it called "unprecedented" destruction from the floods.

Ms Merkel had vowed on a visit to the badly damaged medieval town of Bad Muenstereifel on Tuesday that Berlin would help in the short and long term.

"This was flooding that surpassed our imagination when you see the destruction it wrought," the chancellor told reporters in the 17,000-strong community in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) state.

Ms Merkel, who is retiring this year after 16 years, said her government would do everything in its power "so that the money is with people fast".

"I hope it will be a matter of days," she said, noting that she had met victims "left with nothing but the clothes on their backs".

Ms Merkel was joined on the visit by NRW premier Armin Laschet, head of her Christian Democratic Union and the front-runner in the race to succeed her as chancellor after a general election on September 26.

Mr Laschet pledged to double Berlin's assistance with a cash injection from his own state budget and said it could take "months if not years to rebuild".

Mr Scholz, the chancellorship candidate for the Social Democrats, said Germany would have to prepare for increasingly frequent natural disasters triggered by climate change.

A total of 123 people were confirmed to have died in the flooding in Rhineland-Palatinate state and 155 were missing, with at least 48 fatalities in NRW and one in Bavaria.

"We are still looking for missing people as we clear roads and pump out cellars," the vice president of Germany's THW civil protection agency, Sabine Lackner, told media group Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.

"However, by now it is unfortunately very likely that we will only be able to recover victims, not rescue them."

Annalena Baerbock, the Greens' flag bearer for the election, said the country must prepare better for more disasters caused by global warming.

"Germany has been fortunate for decades in suffering relatively few natural catastrophes," she told Der Spiegel magazine.

"But that's meant that the disaster protection measures haven't been sufficiently developed, although experts have been warning for years about climate-driven extreme weather events."

Updated: July 21, 2021, 7:37 PM