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Hundreds still missing after floods devastate western Germany

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German emergency services stepped up their search for hundreds of people who are still missing after the worst flooding in the country’s postwar history caused 93 deaths and left a trail of devastation in its wake.

Rivers across parts of western Germany burst their banks after days of heavy rain turned them into raging torrents that swept away houses, destroyed bridges and roads and left several town centres in ruins.

Large parts of the rail network in the west were still severely disrupted on Friday, with several routes blocked. International train services from Germany to Belgium were also affected. Thousands remained without electricity, and some districts were without fresh water.

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The death toll rose again on Friday when local authorities in Erftstadt-Blessem, south-west of Cologne, said a number of people had died after flood damage caused their houses to collapse. Gas leaks were complicating rescue efforts.

One place at the centre of the flooding was Schuld on the Ahr river: German TV showed its town centre piled high with debris.

“The effects of this catastrophe will surely be felt for weeks,” said Juergen Pfoehler, an official in the Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate, south of Cologne.

Officials in Ahrweiler said about 1,300 people appeared to be missing as of Thursday night. Cellular networks were down, however, making it hard to locate people. “Due to the complexity of the damage caused, a final assessment of the situation is not yet possible,” the district government wrote on its website.

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Floods have also hit parts of Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium, where 12 died and five people are still missing.

Speaking in Washington before talks with US president Joe Biden, German chancellor Angela Merkel pledged rapid help on Thursday to those affected by the floods, backed by “all the powers of the state”.

A severely damaged property in Schuld, near Adenau, in western Germany
Homes were severely damaged in Schuld, near Adenau, in Germany © Sasha Steinbach//EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

German interior minister Horst Seehofer told Der Spiegel magazine that the government would provide financial aid to the affected regions as quickly as possible, and a support programme would be put before the German cabinet on Wednesday.

Seehofer, 72, one of Germany’s veteran politicians, said that “in my entire political career in Germany I have never seen such a flood with such terrible consequences, with so many deaths and so many people missing”.

Scientists have warned that extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and heatwaves will increase as the planet continues to warm.

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“No one can seriously doubt that this catastrophe is connected to climate change,” Seehofer said. “Overall, any sensible person must get the fact that freak weather of this density and frequency is not a normal phenomenon in this part of the world, but the consequences of man-made global warming.”

A couple embrace as they stand amid debris caused by the floodwater in Germany
A couple embrace as they stand amid debris caused by the floodwater in Germany © Christof Stache/AFP/Getty

The floods affected two German states, North Rhine-Westphalia, where authorities said 43 people had died, and Rhineland-Palatinate, which reported 50 deaths. Local officials said they expected the death toll to rise once the floodwaters ebbed.

This month’s floods across Europe are expected to lead to another billion-dollar loss for the insurance industry, according to broker Aon. It follows a torrent of hail and heavy rain in June that Aon predicted would lead to $ 4.5bn in payouts from insurers — making it Europe’s costliest two-week stretch on record.

The total financial impact last month, including uninsured losses, was more than $ 6bn, it predicted. 

Additional reporting by Ian Smith

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Hundreds still missing after floods devastate western Germany
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