Mayen, Germany: Heavy rains and floods lashing western Europe have killed at least 42 people in Germany and left many more missing, as rising waters led several houses to collapse on Thursday.
Unusually heavy rains also inundated neighboring Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium, where at least four people were reported dead and people were ordered to evacuate a riverbank in one city.
In Germany, which is experiencing one of the worst weather disasters since the Second World War, desperate residents sought refuge on the roofs of their homes as rescue helicopters circled above.
Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) states were the worst hit by the unusually heavy rainfall, which has caused rivers to burst their banks and threatens to bring down more homes.
Pensioner Annemarie Mueller, 65, looking out at her flooded garden and garage from her balcony, said her town of Mayen had been completely unprepared for the destruction.
“Where did all this rain come from? It’s crazy,” she told AFP, recalling the floodwater crashing through her street during the night.
“It made such a loud noise and given how fast it came down, we thought it would break the door down.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel, on a visit to Washington, said she was “shocked” by the humanitarian “disaster”.
She vowed that the government would do “everything in its power to, under the most difficult circumstances, save lives, prevent danger and ease suffering”.
NRW leader Armin Laschet, who is running to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel in the September elections, canceled a party meeting in Bavaria to visit the scene in his state, Germany’s most populous.
“The situation is alarming,” Laschet told the daily Bild.
“We will stand by the towns and people who’ve been affected,” Laschet, clad in rubber boots, told reporters in the town of Hagen.
He called for “speeding up” global efforts to fight climate change, underlining the link between global warming and extreme weather.
Because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, climate change increases the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.
Four of the dead in Germany were in the municipality of Schuld south of Bonn where six houses were swept away by floods, a police spokesman in the city of Koblenz told AFP.
Several of the dead were recovered from flooded cellars while another eight people were reported dead in the district of Euskirchen.
In NRW alone, 135,000 households were without power.
Emergency workers struggled to evacuate people in endangered buildings and two firemen were killed in the line of duty in the towns of Altena and Werdohl.
Police set up a crisis hotline for people to report missing loved ones and residents were asked to send in videos and photos that could help them in the search.
Rescue workers were deployed in helicopters to pluck people off streets and rooftops.
Regional official Juergen Pfoehler called on people to stay home “and, if possible, go to higher floors” of their houses.
The German military said it would deploy 300 soldiers across the two affected states to assist in rescue efforts.
Farther north in the city of Leverkusen, a power outage triggered by the storms led to the evacuation of a hospital with 468 patients.
City authorities reported that after intensive care patients were moved to other facilities overnight, the other wards would have to be cleared in the course of the day.
The environment ministry in Rhineland-Palatinate warned it expected floodwaters on the Rhine and Moselle rivers to rise with more rainfall.
‘Go to higher floors’
At least 18 bodies were recovered in the region around the western town of Ahrweiler alone, a police spokesman told AFP.
Local officials had earlier reported up to 70 people missing.
Farther north, the district of Euskirchen in NRW reported 15 dead. Four more victims were in the municipality of Schuld south of Bonn where six houses were swept away by floods.
Several other bodies were recovered from flooded cellars across the region.
The environment ministry in Rhineland-Palatinate state warned it expected floodwaters on the Rhine and Moselle rivers to rise with more rainfall.
In NRW and Rhineland-Palatinate, some 200,000 households were without power.
Police set up a crisis hotline for reporting missing loved ones and residents were asked to send in videos and photos that could help them in the search.
Regional official Juergen Pfoehler in Ahrweiler urged people to stay home “and, if possible, go to higher floors” of their houses.
The German military deployed some 400 soldiers across the two affected states to assist in rescue efforts.
In the city of Leverkusen, a power outage triggered by the storms led to the evacuation of a hospital with 468 patients.
Neighbouring Belgium has also seen several days of heavy rain that has caused rivers in the French-speaking region of Wallonia to burst their banks. Two were reported dead.
The provinces of Liege and Namur were especially affected, with the resort town of Spa completely flooded. In the town of Chaudfontaine, daily Le Soir reported that nearly 1,800 people had to evacuate.
“We have rarely experienced such intense flooding. You have to go back to 1998 to have experienced this,” Chaudefontaine mayor Daniel Bacquelaine told RTL radio.
The country’s Infrabel rail network said it was suspending services in the southern half of the country on Thursday, given the risks to travel.
“It is indeed impossible to ensure the safe movement of trains for passengers or to have access to strategic areas for their staff,” Transport Minister Georges Gilkinet told Belga news agency.
The southern Dutch province of Limburg which is bordered by Germany and Belgium also reported widespread damage with rising waters threatening to cut off the small city of Valkenburg west of Maastricht.
Local news footage showed small rivers of water flowing through the scenic city center’s streets and at least one old age home had been evacuated.
Officials also closed off several roads including the busy A2 highway, while fears remained that water from heavy rains in Germany and Belgium would push up river levels as it reached the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, the Luxembourg government set up a crisis cell to respond to emergencies triggered by heavy rains overnight as Prime Minister Xavier Bettel reported “several homes” had been flooded and were “no longer inhabitable”.
This story has been updated to reflect the latest developments and correct an erroneous bureau attribution in the first paragraph.