Search and recovery underway after severe flooding in Europe

German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured a devastated village on Sunday and pledged quick financial aid in the wake of the flooding. 

Thomas Frey/dpa via AP
Residents and shopkeepers clear mud and debris from their homes in Ahrweiler, western Germany, Saturday, July 17, 2021, after heavy rains caused mudslides and flooding in the western part of Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel surveyed what she called a “surreal, ghostly” scene in a devastated village on Sunday, pledging quick financial aid and a redoubled political focus on curbing climate change as the death toll from floods in Western Europe climbed above 180.

Merkel toured Schuld, a village on a tight curve of the Ahr River in western Germany where many buildings were damaged or destroyed by rapidly rising floodwaters Wednesday night.

Although the mayor of Schuld said no one was killed or injured there, many other places weren't so lucky. The death toll in the Ahrweiler area, where Schuld is located, stood at 112. Authorities said people are still missing and they fear the toll may still rise.

In neighboring North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany’s most populous, 46 people were killed, including four firefighters. Belgium confirmed 31 deaths.

Merkel said she came away from Schuld, still partly strewn with rubble and mud in bright sunshine, with “a real picture of, I must say, the surreal, ghostly situation.”

“It is shocking — I would almost say that the German language barely has words for the devastation that has been wreaked,” she said at a news conference in a nearby town.

Merkel said authorities will work to “set the world right again in this beautiful region, step by step,” and her Cabinet will approve an immediate and medium-term financial aid program on Wednesday.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that more than 300 million euros ($354 million) will be needed immediately. And he said officials must set up a longer-term rebuilding program which, from experience with previous flooding, will be in the billions of euros.

“Thankfully, Germany is a country that can manage this financially,” said Merkel, who is stepping down as chancellor following an election in September. “Germany is a strong country and we will stand up to this force of nature in the short term — but also in the medium and long term, through policy that pays more regard to nature and the climate than we did in recent years. That will be necessary too.”

Scientists can’t yet say for sure whether climate change caused the flooding, but they insist that it exacerbates the extreme weather disasters on display around the world.

“We must get faster in the battle against climate change,” Merkel said, pointing to policies already set in motion by Germany and the European Union to cut greenhouse gas emissions. “And nevertheless, the second lesson is that we must pay great attention to adaptation” to climate change.

Investing in fighting climate change is expensive, she said, but failing to do so is even more costly.

“One flood isn't the example of climate change, but if we look at the loss events of recent years, decades, then they are simply more frequent than they were previously — so we must make a great effort,” Merkel said.

Residents in the devastated areas will be needing support and comfort for a long time yet.

“This flood will leave scars on the people of Schuld — scars that you don’t forget, that can’t be overcome, because our lives changed from one day to the next,” Mayor Helmut Lussi said, breaking into sobs as he spoke.

Although the rain has stopped in the worst-affected areas of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, storms and downpours have persisted elsewhere in western and central Europe. There was flooding Saturday night in the German-Czech border area, in Germany’s southeastern corner, and over the border in Austria.

About 130 people were evacuated in Germany’s Berchtesgaden area after the Ache River swelled. At least one person was killed and the rail line to Berchtesgaden was closed.

The Berchtesgaden area also is the home of the sliding track in Koenigssee, the site of major international bobsled, skeleton and luge events for more than 50 years. Large segments of that track were destroyed, parts of the concrete chute turned into rubble by the rushing water.

A flash flood hit the nearby Austrian town of Hallein late Saturday, but there were no reports of casualties. Farther west, flooding struck parts of the town of Kufstein. Heavy rain and storms caused serious damage in several parts of Austria.

Pope Francis prayed for the flood victims and in support of the “efforts of all to help those who suffered great damage.”

“I express my closeness to the populations of Germany, Belgium and Holland, hit by catastrophic flooding,” he said Sunday in his first public appearance to the faithful in St. Peter’s Square after major surgery. “May the Lord welcome the deceased and comfort the family members.”

In the eastern Belgian town of Pepinster, soldiers and firefighters on Sunday searched for any remaining survivors or bodies, according to public broadcaster RTBF. All the houses still standing have been searched, so the effort focused on those that collapsed and in a valley downstream for anyone possibly swept away by the raging torrent.

The ground in the town remains unstable and several more houses could collapse. “We have to be careful with every step we take,” fire officer Olivier Jiust was quoted as saying.

The flood-stricken Dutch town of Venlo allowed most residents back home Sunday, and trains began running again in the area, authorities said.

Meanwhile, a cow swept 100 kilometers (60 miles) along a flooded Dutch river will live out its days in a meadow, according to its owner. Farmer Har Smeets told local broadcaster 1Limburg that he lost 10 other cows to high water in the southern part of the Netherlands, but one was found by a cyclist outside the town of Escharen and rescued by firefighters.

The cow, originally from the town of Echt, was seen Saturday standing with only its nose poking out of the muddy water of the Maas River, unable to free itself. Fire brigades managed to pull the animal onto dry land, and authorities traced the owner via an ear tag. Smeets says the cow has eaten and is resting comfortably.

“It is unbelievable that such an animal can swim or float for so long and then still have the strength to come ashore,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed.

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