Rescue workers laboured to clear up damage laid bare by receding water Saturday as the death toll from disastrous flooding in western Europe rose above 150 and thoughts turned to the lengthy job of rebuilding communities devastated in minutes.
Police said that more than 90 people are now known to have died in western Germany’s Ahrweiler county, one of the worst-hit areas, and more casualties are feared.
Another 43 people were confirmed dead in neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia state. Belgium’s national crisis centre put the country’s confirmed death toll at 24 and said it expects the number to rise.
Days of heavy rain turned streets into raging rivers this week and caused the disastrous flooding that swept away cars, destroyed homes and trapped residents. By Saturday, most of those missing had been accounted for, but floodwaters were receding across much of the affected regions, revealing the extent of the damage.
“A lot of people have lost everything they spent their lives building up — their possessions, their home, the roof over their heads,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after meeting rescue workers and others in the town of Erftstadt.
“It may only be possible to clear up in weeks how much damage needs to be compensated,” he said.
Steinmeier said that people in the affected areas are counting on continuing support.
“Many people here in these regions have nothing left but their hope, and we must not disappoint this hope,” he said.
In Erftstadt, a town southwest of Cologne, a harrowing rescue effort unfolded on Friday when the ground in a neighborhood gave way, At least three houses and part of a mansion in the town’s Blessem district collapsed.
The German military used armoured vehicles to clear away cars and trucks overwhelmed by the floodwaters on a nearby road, some of which remained at least partly submerged. Officials feared that some people didn’t manage to escape in Erftstadt, but no casualties were confirmed by Saturday afternoon.
In the Ahrweiler area, police warned of a potential risk from downed power lines and urged curious visitors to stay away. They complained on Twitter that would-be sightseers were blocking some roads.
Many areas were still without electricity and telephone service — something that, along with multiple counting, appeared to have accounted in part for large numbers of missing people that authorities gave immediately after the floods hit on Wednesday and Thursday.
About 700 people were evacuated from part of the German town of Wassenberg, on the Dutch border, after the breach of a dike on the Rur river.
Across the border in eastern Belgium, train lines and roads remained blocked in many areas. A café owner in the devastated town of Pepinster broke down in tears when King Philippe and Queen Mathilde visited on Friday to offer comfort to residents.
Southern parts of the Netherlands also have been hit by heavy flooding.
Volunteers worked through the night to shore up dikes and protect roads. Thousands of residents of the southern Dutch towns of Bunde, Voulwames, Brommelen and Geulle were allowed to return home Saturday morning after being evacuated on Thursday and Friday.
Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who visited the region on Friday, said that “first, there was corona, now these floods, and soon people will have to work on cleanup and recovery.”