At least 120 killed and hundreds more missing in European flood disaster

Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and the Netherlands devastated after record rainfall

The death toll from the devastating floods in western Europe reached 128 on Friday with many more missing after the worst weather disaster to hit the region in 80 years.

Record rainfall caused rivers to burst their banks, catching residents off guard and leaving a trail of destruction and despair.

Entire towns and villages lay in ruins in the hardest-hit German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, where at least 1,300 people were reported missing.

After days of heavy rain, 108 people were confirmed dead in Germany alone, the largest number killed in a natural disaster in the country in almost 60 years.

Unsuspecting residents were caught completely off guard by the torrent dubbed the "flood of death" by German newspaper Bild.

In Belgium, which has declared a day of mourning on Tuesday, officials said there were at least 20 dead and another 20 missing. More than half of the 53 counties in North Rhine-Westphalia state were affected by the floods, which damaged hundreds of buildings.

One of the villages left devastated by the floodwaters was Gemünd, where residents spent the day trying to remove the mud and debris left by the raging torrents.

The village has two rivers running through it: the Olef, which has its mouth on the Urft and both rivers burst their banks after heavy summer rainstorms.

Federal and state officials have pledged financial aid to the affected areas of Germany, which also include the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

In all, 63 people perished in Rhineland-Palatinate, including 12 residents of an assisted living facility for disabled people.

The death toll in neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia stood at 43, but officials warned that it could increase.

As the floodwaters began to ebb, shocked residents surveyed what was left of their homes and neighbourhoods.

Despair was written over their faces.

"It was terrible not to able to help people," said local man Frank Thel.

"They were waving at us from windows. Houses were collapsing to the left and right of them and in the house between they were waving. We were lucky, we survived."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told victims the government would not "leave you alone in this difficult, terrible hour".

"I fear that we will only see the full extent of the disaster in the coming days," she said.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, said the area was bearing the brunt of climate change and its effect on the planet.

"These are these are horrible events, the flooding events we see in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg," she said. "Our thoughts are with the victims, their families and their loved ones. The commission has already activated the mechanisms to support and help those member states in this very, very difficult, catastrophic scenario. Science tells us that with climate change, we see more and more extreme weather phenomenons that last longer.

Twelve of the dead were residents of a home for disabled people in Sinzig, south of Cologne, who were surprised by the flash floods during the night.

Across the border in Belgium, most of the drowned were found around Liege, where the rains hit hardest.

At least 12 people were killed there, with thousands of homes still without electricity on Friday in several border towns, but hopes were rising that the worst of the calamity was over.

Belgian Prime MinisterAlexander De Croo said the flood disaster was "unprecedented" as he declared July 20 a national day of mourning.

"We are still waiting for the final toll, but this could be the most catastrophic flooding our country has ever seen," he said.

Luxembourg and the Netherlands were also severely affected by the torrents of water, with thousands evacuated in the Dutch city of Maastricht.

But Germany's toll was by far the highest, and likely to rise with the large numbers of people still missing.

There are fears for people living below the Steinbach reservoir, which is overflowing and could burst. More rain in the west of Germany is threatening to raise the Rhine to dangerous levels.

Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, blamed the extreme weather on global warming during a visit to a hard-hit area.

"We will be faced with such events over and over, and that means we need to speed up climate protection measures ... because climate change isn't confined to one state," he said.

Malu Dreyer, the premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, said: “Climate change isn’t abstract anymore. We are experiencing it up close and painfully."

German MP Stephan Mayer said he was "deeply convinced" the severity and scale of the flooding.

"[Some German states] are used to flooding and they’ve had flooding in the past … but we haven't experienced such an event like this one," he told the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme on Friday.

"Small creeks, small streams developed within a few minutes into strong streams and rivers. The people couldn’t prepare for that, they couldn’t escape."

Mobile phone networks collapsed in some of the flood-stricken regions, leaving family and friends unable to track down loved ones.

Desperate residents sought refuge on the roofs of their homes as rescue helicopters circled overhead.

Looking out at her flooded garden and garage from her balcony, Annemarie Mueller, 65, said her town of Mayen was completely unprepared for the destruction.

“Where did all this rain come from? It's crazy,” she said.

“It made such a loud noise and given how fast it came down, we thought it would break the door down.”

About 1,000 soldiers were deployed to help with rescue operations and rubble-clearing in affected towns and villages.

Streets and houses under water, overturned cars and uprooted trees were seen once floodwaters started to recede, while some districts were cut off by landslides.

In Ahrweiler, a rural district south of Bonn, several houses collapsed completely, leaving the impression the town had been struck by a tsunami.

At least 20 people were confirmed dead in Euskirchen.

Its normally smart centre was turned into a heap of rubble, with house facades torn off by the rushing floods. A nearby dam remains at risk of giving way.

"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," Ms Merkel said.

The UAE's President Sheikh Khalifa sent messages of condolence to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Ms Merkel. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, also dispatched similar messages to the German leaders.

At least on Friday five people were still missing in Belgium where the Army was sent to four of the country's 10 provinces to help with rescue and evacuation.

With homes under water since Wednesday, people from resort town Spa were being put up in tents.

The swollen Meuse river burst its banks and spilled into the city of Liege, with a population of 200,000.

The storms put climate change back at the centre of Germany's election campaign before the parliamentary poll on September 26 marks the end of Ms Merkel's 16 years in power.

Germany "must prepare much better" because "this extreme weather is a consequence of climate change", Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said.

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.

Updated: July 17th 2021, 6:08 AM
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