A street is flooded due to persistent storms, in Esch, Germany, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Continuous rainfall has flooded numerous villages and cellars in Rhineland-Palatinate, southwestern Germany. (Thomas Frey/dpa via AP)

Over 60 dead, dozens missing as severe floods strike Europe

Over 60 dead, dozens missing as severe floods strike Europe

BERLIN (AP) — More than 60 people have died and dozens were missing Thursday as severe flooding in Germany and Belgium turned streams and streets into raging torrents that swept away cars and caused houses to collapse.

Among those killed were nine residents of an assisted living facility for people with disabilities and two firefighters involved in rescue efforts across the region.

“I grieve for those who have lost their lives in this disaster,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a visit to Washington, expressing shock at the scope of the flooding.

Speaking alongside U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House, Merkel said her thoughts were with all those who had lost loved ones or were still searching for them.

“I fear the full extent of this tragedy will only be seen in the coming days,” she said.

Biden likewise paid his condolences for the devastating loss of life and the destruction due to the flooding.

“Our hearts go out to the families who’ve lost loved ones,” he said.

Authorities said at least 30 people died in North Rhine-Westphalia state and 28 in neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate to the south. Belgian media reported eight deaths in that country.

Recent storms across parts of western Europe made rivers and reservoirs burst their banks, triggering flash floods overnight after the saturated soil couldn’t absorb any more water.

Among the worst-hit German villages was Schuld, where several homes collapsed and dozens of people remained unaccounted for.

Rescue operations were hampered by blocked roads and phone and internet outages across the Eifel, a volcanic region of rolling hills and small valleys. Some villages were reduced to rubble as old brick and timber houses couldn’t withstand the sudden rush of water, often carrying trees and other debris as it gushed through narrow streets.

Karl-Heinz Grimm, who had come to help his parents in Schuld, said he had never seen the small Ahr River surge in such a deadly torrent.

“This night, it was like madness,” he said.

Dozens of people had to be rescued from the roofs of their houses with inflatable boats and helicopters. Hundreds of soldiers were deployed to assist in the rescue efforts.

“There are people dead, there are people missing, there are many who are still in danger,” the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state, Malu Dreyer, told the regional parliament. “We have never seen such a disaster. It’s really devastating.”

The 52nd Civil Engineer squadron and several volunteers from the U.S. air base at Spangdahlem filled and distributed hundreds of sandbags to help protect homes and businesses in the area, the U.S. European Command said.

In Belgium, the Vesdre River spilled over its banks and sent water churning through the streets of Pepinster, near Liege, where a rescue operation by firefighters went wrong when a small boat capsized and three elderly people disappeared.

“Unfortunately, they were quickly engulfed,” said Mayor Philippe Godin. “I fear they are dead.”

In Verviers, the prosecutor’s office said several bodies had been found but could not confirm local media reports that four people were killed there.

In Liege, a city of 200,000, the Meuse River overflowed its banks Thursday and the mayor asked people living nearby to move to higher ground.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged to help, and Pope Francis sent condolences, with his office saying the pontiff was praying for those injured and missing, as well as those who have lost their livelihoods.

The full extent of the damage was still unclear, with many villages cut off by floods and landslides that made roads impassable. Many of the dead were only discovered after floodwaters receded.

Authorities in the Rhine-Sieg county south of Cologne ordered the evacuation of several villages below the Steinbach reservoir amid fears a dam could break.

Armin Laschet, the governor of North-Rhine Westphalia state, paid tribute to two firefighters who died and pledged swift help.

“We don’t know the extent of the damage yet, but we won’t leave the communities, the people affected alone,” he said during a visit to the city of the flood-hit city of Hagen.

Laschet, a conservative who is running to succeed Merkel as chancellor in this fall’s election, said the unusually heavy storms and an earlier heat wave could be linked to climate change.

 

A man walks by damaged cars in a flooded street in Mery, Province of Liege, Belgium, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. A code red was issued in parts of Belgium on Wednesday as severe rains hit the area. (AP Photo/Valentin Bianchi)