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Germany picks through rubble after deadly floods sweep western Europe

ERFTSTADT: Rescuers fought on Saturday to find survivors and victims of the devastating floods that hit Western Europe in the living memory, as a result of which more than 150 people have died and dozens are missing.

West Germany suffered severe flooding that also hit Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, leaving streets and houses submerged in murky waters and isolating entire communities.

Three days after the disaster, 133 people died in Germany. Many more bodies are likely to be found in wet basements and destroyed homes, rescuers said.

“We have to assume that we will find other victims,” said Caroline Weizel, mayor of Erftstadt, where the flood caused a landslide.

In Germany’s worst-hit states, North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, flood survivors gradually returned to their homes and places of desolation on Saturday.

“A few minutes later, a wave hit the house,” baker Cornelia Schlesser told AFP of the torrents that came to the town of Schuld, taking with them her century-old family business.

“It was all a nightmare for 48 hours, we walk in circles here, but we can’t do anything,” she said, examining the piles of twisted metal, broken glass and wood that had accumulated outside her former store.

In neighboring Belgium, the death toll has risen to 24, with many people still missing.

Prime Minister Alexandre de Croo was heading for what he called “unprecedented” flood damage in the Meuse Basin. He declared Tuesday a day of official mourning.

Luxemburg and the Netherlands were also hit by torrential rains, flooding many areas and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people to the city of Maastricht.

A daunting task

A broken dam in the German district of Heinsberg, 65 km (40 miles) southwest of Düsseldorf, triggered an emergency evacuation of more than 700 residents overnight.

In some of the affected areas, firefighters, local officials and soldiers, some driving tanks, began colossal work to clear the piles of debris clogging the streets.

“The challenge is enormous,” said Tim Kurzbach, mayor of Solingen, a city in the south of the Ruhr area.

The real extent of the disaster is only now becoming clear: an assessment of the damaged buildings, some of which will have to be demolished, is under way, and efforts are being made to restore gas, electricity and telephone services.

The disruption of communications networks has made it difficult to estimate the number of missing persons, and most roads in the flooded Ahr Valley are not working.

More than 90 people were killed in the Ahrweiler area, including 12 residents of the home for the disabled who drowned in the rising waters.

Roger Leventz, Minister of the Interior of the Rhineland-Palatinate state, told local media that up to 60 people are still missing. More than 600 were injured.

The government said it is working to create a special aid fund, the cost of which is expected to reach several billion euros.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who returned Friday from a trip to Washington overshadowed by the disaster, pledged to provide “short-term and long-term government support” to the affected municipalities.

Her spokesman said on Friday that she is in close contact with regional leaders about “an early visit to the crash site.”

Focus on climate change

Devastating floods have brought climate change back to the center of Germany’s election campaign ahead of the September 26 poll, marking the end of Merkel’s 16-year rule.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called for a more “determined” fight against global warming in light of the disaster ahead of Saturday’s visit to Erftstadt.

Armin Laschet of the Merkel Christian Democratic Union, the leader who replaced the veteran chancellor, spoke of “a disaster of historic proportions.”

The news magazine Der Spiegel said the floods would draw attention to the candidates’ responses to climate change.

“In the coming days, there will be confirmation that this is not a problem for the campaign, but of course it is,” the message says.

“People want to know how politicians are going to get them through something like this.”

German reinsurance giant Munich Re said countries will have to anticipate an increase in the “frequency and intensity” of natural disasters due to climate change, calling for preventive action “that will ultimately be less costly.” – AFP

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