Floods in Europe: desperate search for survivors after “catastrophe of historic proportions”

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Antoinette Steinhoff stands at the edge of the flooded cemetery, overwhelmed by the sight of destruction in front of her. “My mother is over there,” she said, pointing to a black marble tomb with a cross on it.

When flooding hit the village, the 76-year-old saw an entire house washed away. Two people were still inside, Steinhoff said. “They found one of the bodies in the vineyard,” she added.

Much of Altenahr is in ruins now. Restaurants scattered along the banks of the river have been destroyed and entire sections of buildings have been torn up. In some areas, the water line reaches halfway through the second floor.

The streets, or what’s left of them, are buried in mud, cars stuck between collapsed buildings and piles of debris.

It’s a sight seen across large swathes of Western Europe in the wake of catastrophic floods that killed at least 160 people and left hundreds more missing or missing.
Antoinnette Steinhoff stands at the edge of the flooded Altenahr cemetery.
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At least 133 people died in Germany when flooding swept through the western states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and the Saar. In Belgium, 27 were confirmed dead on Saturday afternoon, with authorities warning the number could rise.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said that “my heart sank” while visiting Belgian cities, and she pledged to “stand beside” the flood victims whose homes were destroyed.

The drinking water supply is gradually being restored in Wallonia.

Luxembourg and the Netherlands were also affected by the extreme rainfall, but reported no deaths.

The images showed entire towns and villages underwater and houses buried under landslides and debris.

The desperate search for survivors continues despite rising waters, landslides and power outages. The German army has deployed 850 troops for disaster relief.

According to the Home Office, around 22,000 firefighters and rescuers are involved in rescue and recovery operations in North Rhine-Westphalia alone.

Residents described the chaos that ensued as the water rose, making it impossible to escape the area and trapping people in their homes.

“The water was so high that you couldn’t go with smaller cars, they had special cars, and went in and tried to get (as many) people out of that area as possible. Take people out there. -bas, “Michael Kautsch told CNN.

Kautsch lives in Erftstadt, a town near Cologne that has become one of the symbols of destruction. A number of buildings, including parts of a historic castle, were destroyed after a large sinkhole opened in a nearby quarry. “The water was flowing and dragged parts of the city into this hole, and now (…) mentioned.

European officials say

Communication lines remain interrupted in flooded areas, preventing people from reaching their loved ones.

Koblenz police told CNN on Saturday that while 1,300 people were still missing, authorities hoped the numbers would be revised downward as the rescue operation continues.

“There is no end in sight yet,” Ulrich Sopart, spokesman for the city police, told CNN. “We hope that some people may have been reported missing two or even three times – if for example a family member, co-worker or friend registered someone as missing,” Sopart said.

In addition, (in) some places the phone lines are still down and reception is difficult. We hope people will get in touch with a relative, co-worker or friend to let them know they are doing well, ”he said.

Villages along the Ahr River have been left without power or phone coverage, with some areas completely cut off, forcing the military and search-and-rescue helicopters to monitor the area from the air, looking for stranded survivors.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited the Rhein-Erft-Kreis district in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia on Saturday. Seeing the destruction with his own eyes, he said the cleanup and recovery “will take a long time.”

Altenahr cemetery was flooded Thursday.

A dam along the Rur River in North Rhine-Westphalia broke on Friday evening, according to the regional government. The authorities began the evacuation of around 700 residents of the Ophoven district of the town of Wassenberg.

Across the Belgian border, the Belgian army is racing against time with search and rescue operations.

Marie-Louise Grosjean, a store owner in Pepinster, Belgium, saw a decade of hard work swept away by water and mud on Friday, when water entered her wine and home decor store. She said her father had lived in the city for 70 years and had never seen anything like it. Grosjean’s son Arthur told CNN the flooding happened very quickly, leaving nothing but destruction.

“Fortunately I don’t live there, but it’s my mother’s business and there is nothing here. We hope we can fix it quickly but we don’t know how,” he said, so that he was helping with the cleaning.

“The situation is changing minute by minute and remains extremely critical in many places,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said at a press conference on Friday. “The victims are the priority, the rescue is the priority, and the care. All possible means are mobilized”, he added, announcing that Belgium would organize Tuesday a national day of mourning for the victims of the floods.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Dutch authorities have ordered the evacuation of 10,000 people in the municipality of Venlo, where the Meuse has risen faster than expected. The high water is expected to last until Sunday evening.

Authorities fear more dams will break and are closely monitoring reservoirs in the region. On Friday, a hospital in the area with 200 patients was evacuated.

The Dutch Red Cross is supporting flood evacuees as water levels in Venlo rise.

Climate crisis is fueling extreme rainfall

The devastating flooding came after large swathes of Western Europe experienced historic rainfall levels, with more than a month of rain falling in 24 hours.

Cologne, in North Rhine-Westphalia, recorded 154 millimeters (6 inches) of precipitation in the 24 hours leading up to Thursday morning, nearly double its July monthly average of 87 millimeters. In the district of Ahrweiler, 207 millimeters (8.1 inches) of rain fell in just nine hours, according to the European Severe Weather Database.

The showers resulted in extreme flash floods, with water levels rising within minutes.

While it’s too early for scientists to say how much climate change played into the cause of this particular flood, extreme rain events like those seen in Western Europe this week are becoming more frequent and severe.

Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, Armin Laschet, who is also the Conservatives’ candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel in the upcoming federal election, said the flooding in his state was “a disaster of historic proportion” , calling on the world to step up its efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Merkel plans to visit the region on Sunday. Leaders have pledged recovery funds to those affected.

“The floods literally pulled the rug out from under people’s feet,” Laschet said.

“We will be confronted with such events again and again, and this means that we must accelerate climate protection measures, at European, federal and global levels, because climate change is not confined to a single state,” he said. -he declares.

While the overall amount of precipitation may not change over the course of the year in a given location, more of the rain is expected to fall in shorter gusts, which would tend to increase the frequency of flooding.

A damaged castle, left, is seen in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany on Saturday July 17, 2021.

This was noted by scientists from the European Environment Agency, who said that “the predicted increase in the frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall over much of Europe could increase the likelihood of flash floods, which pose the greatest risk of death “.

Droughts, which are also becoming more frequent due to the climate crisis, can make flash floods worse because very dry soil cannot effectively absorb water.

In 2016, the floods in Western Europe that killed 18 people in Germany, France, Romania and Belgium were analyzed by scientists to see if climate change was playing a role. They found that a warmer climate made flooding 80 to 90 percent more likely to occur than in the past before human-caused climate change.

CNN’s Sam Kiley, Barbara Wojazer, Melissa Bell, Chris Burns, Joseph Ataman, Nadine Schmidt, Schams Elwazer, Sharon Braithwaite, Angela Dewan, Ulrike Dehmel and Brandon Miller contributed to this report. Ivana Kottasova wrote in London.

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