Floods in Europe: death toll rises to 170 in Germany and Belgium disaster

    19 Jul 2021

    In mid-July, downpours of historic intensity occurred in several regions of Western Europe, causing many rivers to overflow their banks. Particularly affected are areas in western Germany in the lands of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate. According to German meteorologists, a monthly rainfall fell per night in some areas, and such rains have not been seen in these lands for more than 100 years.

    As a result of downpours and flooding, many residential buildings were destroyed and damaged. More than 100 people died (most of them in Germany), hundreds of people are considered missing, Meduza reports.

    Heavy rains caused heavy flooding in western Germany on July 14-15.

    Emergency rescue operations are underway in flood-affected areas. They involve tens of thousands of specialists.

    As the water gradually recedes in the affected areas, people return to their villages and towns to clear the rubble. At the same time, they still spend the night, eat, and take showers in places specially equipped for their stay. Many people reportedly lost their homes, DW reports.

    The Netherlands, France, and Switzerland also suffer from floods. Destroyed homes, lack of electricity and communications, entire craters on the roads, fallen trees. Like an apocalypse.

    “This is not natural; it is a climate emergency. Companies and governments must take action to curb carbon emissions and stop putting profits over people and the planet,” Greenpeace NGO stated.

    The water level on the roads in Germany reached 12 meters. Locals can barely hold back their tears: “Destruction as after the war. There is nothing to recognize around. There used to be a paradise here, and there was silence, there was a calm splash of the river. Nothing left.”

    July 20 has been declared a day of mourning for those killed in the floods in Belgium.

    The German Ministry of Defense has issued a flood alarm. And the President of Germany, Steinmeier, for his part, called for intensified efforts to combat global warming.

    In western Germany, flooding killed more than 100 people. Hundreds more (and possibly more than a thousand) are missing.

    In western Germany, flooding caused by heavy rains has killed more than 100 people. According to Focus, at least 63 people died in the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, at least 43 people died in North Rhine-Westphalia. These two lands, which are close to the borders of Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and the Netherlands, were hit hardest by the disaster.

    There are conflicting reports of missing persons – journalists talk about hundreds of people. On July 15, when the flood hit, dozens of people were reported missing in two federal states in the disaster area. Later, the authorities of the Ahrweiler district in Rhineland-Palatinate announced that about 1,300 people were missing. There is no cell phone connection in the area, so, according to the authorities, residents cannot report where they are. The federal state police believe that a little less than 100 people have gone missing in the entire region, writes Bild. In Cologne, Bonn, and Euskirchen (all in North Rhine-Westphalia), according to police, there are about 60 missing people.

    Due to flooding, the A1 Autobahn, which runs through the whole of Germany, collapsed. In the Erftstadt-Blessem area, a 40-meter section of the road fell into a river. There were no cars at that moment. In Erftstadt-Blessem, several houses and a historic castle were damaged. In the Ahrweiler area, some bridges have collapsed, and some more cannot be crossed. They are going to be replaced with temporary structures.

    The state authorities of Rhineland-Palatinate have already allocated €50 million for the repair of damaged roads, bridges, and other structures. The state government of North Rhine-Westphalia is also preparing to do so. 

    After the flood, several people tried to rob shops. This happened in the cities of Eschweiler and Stolberg, located in North Rhine-Westphalia. The police detained five suspects. In one case, the suspect tried to rob a jewelry store; in the other – a pharmacy. In three more cases, people tried to steal food and toys. In all cases, shop doors were damaged by flooding.

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised to help the victims “in whatever way she can.” “My thoughts are with you. And you can rest assured that everyone – federal, state, and local governments – will do their utmost to save lives, prevent danger, and alleviate hardships, even in the most difficult conditions,” Merkel said on July 15, after meeting with US President Joe Biden. The German Chancellor expressed condolences to everyone who lost their loved ones due to the floods, not only in Germany but also in Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.


    The Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, candidate for Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Armin Laschet called the incident “a flood of historic proportions.”

    “We haven’t seen such a disaster yet,” admitted Malu Dreyer, Prime Minister of Rhineland-Palatinate. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed condolences to the victims’ families and friends and thanked the rescuers and volunteers who helped during the disaster, DW reports.

    Heavy precipitation, according to forecasts of meteorologists, is expected for almost a day in the southwestern part of Germany, where they are also preparing for flooding.

    Death toll exceeds 180 as Germany and Belgium hit by devastating floods

    The death toll from catastrophic floods in western Germany and Belgium has risen to more than 180, as emergency services continued their search for hundreds still missing, The Guardian reports.

    The German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said he was “stunned” by the devastation caused by the flooding and pledged support to the families of those killed and to cities and towns facing significant damage. It is Germany’s worst natural disaster in more than half a century.

    “In the hour of need, our country stands together,” Steinmeier said on July 16 afternoon. “It’s important that we show solidarity for those from whom the flood has taken everything.”

    Authorities in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate said that 110 people had died there, including at least 12 residents of an assisted living facility for people with disabilities, while neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia put the death toll at 43. One person died in Berchtesgadener Land, a spokeswoman for the Bavarian district told Agence France-Presse.

    Officials warned the figures could rise further. Many people in the Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate remain unaccounted for, although efforts to contact them were hindered by damage to phone networks.

    Experts said the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) issued an extreme flood warning earlier this week and questioned why the toll was so high. Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist, told Politico the disaster was “a monumental failure of the system.”

    The German weather service DWD said it had passed on the warning to local authorities, which should have been responsible for organizing any necessary evacuations. The interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said Germany “must prepare much better” in the future, adding that “this is a consequence of climate change.”

    Steinmeier called for more significant efforts to combat global warming. “Only if we decisively take up the fight against climate change will we be able to limit the extreme weather conditions we are now experiencing,” he said.

    Experts said such disasters were likely to happen more often due to climate change. “Some parts of western Europe received up to two months of rainfall in the space of two days,” World Meteorological Organization spokesperson Clare Nullis said.

    While she said it was too soon to blame the floods and preceding heatwaves on global heating, Nullis said the climate crisis was “increasing the frequency of extreme events while many single events are made worse by global warming.”

    Belgium’s death toll has risen to 27, with another 20 still missing. Most of the dead were found around Liège, a city of 200,000 people, despite an order for residents of central districts and areas bordering the Meuse River to evacuate.

    Verlinden said water levels on the Meuse running into the Netherlands remained critical. “There are several dikes on the Meuse where it is really touching and go whether they will collapse,” she said.

    The army has been sent to four of the country’s ten provinces to help with rescue operations and evacuations, along with teams of emergency workers dispatched from Italy and France. Residents of some towns, including the resort of Spa, which has been underwater since late on Wednesday, were being accommodated in tents.

    While they have so far suffered no loss of life, Switzerland, Luxembourg, neighboring and the Netherlands were also severely affected, with flash floods sweeping through the Swiss villages of Schleitheim and Beggingen, several towns in the Grand Duchy evacuated on July 14, and thousands told to leave their homes in the southern Dutch city of Maastricht.

    The water level in the Maas reached its maximum forecast height in Maastricht on Thursday night but stayed below what authorities had termed the “doom scenario,” averting widespread flooding.

    At least 550 households were evacuated in Roermond, while authorities in Venlo evacuated about 200 hospital patients due to the looming threat of flooding from the river. The caretaker prime minister, Mark Rutte, formally declared a disaster, freeing up state funds to pay for the damage.

    By far, the highest death toll was in Germany, where 114,000 households were without power, and rescuers on Friday were focusing their efforts on helping people trapped in their homes in the town of Erftstadt, south-west of Cologne.

    Regional authorities said several people had died or been reported missing after their houses collapsed when the ground beneath them sank suddenly in a major landslide. Aerial photos showed what appeared to be a massive sinkhole.

    “We managed to get 50 people out of their houses last night,” Frank Rock, a local official, said. “We know of 15 people who still need to be rescued. One has to assume that, under the circumstances, some people didn’t manage to escape.”

    Roads around Erftstadt were impassable, with rescue crews trying to reach residents by boat and having to rely on walkie-talkies to communicate. “The mobile network has collapsed. The infrastructure has collapsed. Hospitals can’t take anyone in. Nursing homes had to be evacuated,” a regional government spokesperson in Cologne said.

    More rain was forecast for parts of the region, where water levels in the Rhine and its tributaries continued to rise. Nearly 1,000 soldiers have been deployed to help with rescue operations and rubble-clearing in affected towns and villages.

    At least 24 people were confirmed dead in Euskirchen, one of the worst-hit towns. Reporters on the scene described a normally well-ordered center transformed into a mountain of rubble and house fronts ripped off by the floods.

    Thousands of people remain homeless after their houses were destroyed or deemed at-risk by authorities, including several villages around the Steinbach reservoir that experts say could collapse under the weight of the floods.

    “I fear that we will only see the full extent of the disaster in the coming days,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said late on July 15 in Washington, where she was visiting Joe Biden, calling it a day “characterized by fear, despair, suffering.”

    She said her government would not leave those affected “alone with their suffering,” adding that it was doing its “utmost to help them in their distress.”

    The conservative governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, running to succeed Merkel as chancellor in elections due in September, called an emergency cabinet meeting for Friday.

     “It is a reality that extreme weather events will influence our everyday life more strongly in the future,” Laschet said, adding: “We have to continue down Germany’s path towards climate neutrality at a faster pace.”

    But he also said that the problems caused by the climate crisis “cannot be solved in North-Rhine Westphalia or Germany.” Malu Dreyer, the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate, said climate change was “not abstract anymore. We are experiencing it up close and painfully.”

    A near-stationary low-pressure weather system brought record levels of rain in the Rhein-Erft-Kreis region until about nine pm on Wednesday, initially flooding fields and farms.

    Hay and vegetable fields that a few weeks ago were wilting under years of drought conditions were suddenly filled with standing water. Basements and ground-floor houses, and apartments in the farming region began to flood.

    Storms and floods are nothing new in Rhein-Erft-Kreis, an area dotted with opencast mines historically used to extract brown coal, gravel, or sand.

    When the Blessem gravel quarry owners applied for an expansion in 2015, local authorities granted their request on the condition they would build a 1.2km protective wall to prevent the pit from filling with water in the event of a flood.

    But the kind of extreme weather events the world is seeing with increasing frequency come with unpredictable consequences. The protective wall between the gravel pit and the Erft proved ineffective as the water overflowed higher up the river, gushing through the town’s streets before collecting at the lowest point.

    Matthias Habel, a Bonn-based geographer who studied flood protection measures in the area as part of his degree, says the catastrophic outcome of the floods would not come as a surprise to those familiar with the situation on the ground.

    “Where the Erft passes Erftstadt it is no longer a naturally flowing river but more like an artificially straightened canal,” Habel tells the Guardian. “It flows much faster here than elsewhere and lacks the natural floodplains that could deal with overflow.”

    On Friday afternoon, the town was nearly empty of people, other than soldiers trying in vain to keep onlookers at bay.

    At the far end of Frauentaler Strasse, usually 100 meters from the Erft, a redbrick building was missing its bottom floors, the walls hanging precariously over the floodwater.

    Water was oil-slicked, and the smell of gas hung in the air. Improvised bags of potting soil and sandbox sand had failed to keep the flood from seeping past: water marks on the older brick buildings showed it reaching at least over a meter high.

    People from nearby villages arrived to check on their neighbors. “It’s absolutely shocking,” one young couple said. “We drive through here every day, and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

    Hundreds of people were still missing or unreachable as several areas were inaccessible due to high water levels, while communication in some places was still down.

    Residents and business owners struggled to pick up the pieces in battered towns.

    “Everything is completely destroyed. You don’t recognize the scenery,” said Michael Lang, owner of a wine shop in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Ahrweiler, fighting back the tears.

    German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Erftstadt in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the disaster killed at least 45 people.

    “We mourn with those that have lost friends, acquaintances, family members,” he said. “Their fate is ripping our hearts apart.”

    Around 700 residents were evacuated late on Friday after a dam broke in the town of Wassenberg near Cologne, authorities said.

    But Wassenberg mayor Marcel Maurer said water levels had been stabilizing since the night. “It’s too early to give the all-clear but we are cautiously optimistic,” he said.

    However, the Steinbachtal dam in western Germany remained at risk of breaching, authorities said, after some 4,500 people were evacuated from homes downstream.

    Steinmeier said it would take weeks before the total damage, expected to require several billions of euros in reconstruction funds, could be assessed.

    Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the ruling CDU party’s candidate in September’s general election, said he would speak to Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in the coming days about financial support.

    Chancellor Angela Merkel was expected to travel on Sunday to Rhineland Palatinate, the state that is home to the devastated village of Schuld.

    According to the national crisis center in Belgium, the death toll rose to 27, which is coordinating the relief operation there.

    It added that 103 people were “missing or unreachable.” Some were likely unreachable because they could not recharge mobile phones or were in the hospital without identity papers, the center said.

    Over the past several days, the floods, which have primarily hit the German states of Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia and eastern Belgium, have cut off entire communities from power and communications.

    RWE, Germany’s largest power producer, said on Saturday its opencast mine in Inden and the Weisweiler coal-fired power plant were massively affected, adding that the plant was running at lower capacity after the situation stabilized.

    In the southern Belgian provinces of Luxembourg and Namur, authorities rushed to supply drinking water to households.

    Flood water levels slowly fell in the worst-hit parts of Belgium, allowing residents to sort through damaged possessions. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited some areas on Saturday afternoon.

    Belgian rail network operator Infrabel published plans of repairs to lines, some of which would be back in service only at the very end of August.

    High alert in the Netherlands

    Emergency services in the Netherlands also remained on high alert as overflowing rivers threatened towns and villages throughout the southern province of Limburg.

    Tens of thousands of residents in the region have been evacuated in the past two days. Soldiers, fire brigades, and volunteers worked frantically throughout July 16 night to enforce dykes and prevent flooding.

    The Dutch have so far escaped disaster on the scale of its neighbors, and as of Saturday morning, no casualties had been reported.

    Scientists have long said that climate change will lead to heavier downpours. But determining its role in these relentless rainfalls will take at least several weeks to research, scientists said on Friday.

    What is causing the floods in Europe?

    Scientists believe climate disruption will bring more extreme weather, and humans are making things worse.

    Are the European floods linked to the climate crisis?

    Almost certainly, The Guardian states. Scientists have long predicted climate disruption will lead to more extreme weather, such as heatwaves, droughts, and floods. Human emissions from engine exhaust fumes, forest burning, and other activities are heating the planet. As the atmosphere gets warmer, it holds more moisture which brings more rain. All the places that recently experienced flooding – Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, London, Edinburgh, Tokyo, and elsewhere – might have had heavy summer rain even without the climate crisis. Still, the deluges were unlikely to have been as intense.

    But there have always been floods and heatwaves. What is the evidence that humans are making them worse?

    First, more records are being broken more often; the world’s seven hottest years in recorded history have all come since 2014. Second, scientists can now use statistical analysis and computer models to calculate how much more likely particular weather events have become due to the extra stress that humans have put on the climate system. For example, human emissions made the deadly “heat dome” in Canada and North America last month at least 150 times more likely. The prolonged heatwave in Siberia the previous year is more than 600 times more probable.

    Richard Betts, the head of climate impacts research at the Met Office Hadley Centre, says such calculations take away the argument that “extreme weather happens anyway, so we don’t need to worry about it.” There has not yet been an attribution study for the latest floods in Europe because the analysis takes several days.

    Some reports suggest the floods may be linked to a disruption of the jet stream. Is that confirmed?

    This is a critical unknown. Climate scientists are looking at this as one of several possible explanations for the previously unimaginable spike in some recent records. The 24-hour rainfall at Cologne’s Stammheim station on July 14 of 155 mm smashed the city’s previous daily rainfall high of 95 mm. Two weeks ago, temperatures at Lytton beat the previous Canadian daily heat record by a staggering 5° C. These numbers are outside worst-case scenarios, which could be the result of freak bad luck or knock-on effects from other areas of climate disruption. One theory is the loss of ice in the Arctic has made the jet stream more erratic. There is not yet a scientific consensus on this topic, but experts are increasingly concerned the world could be in for a bumpier ride than previously thought.

    Over the course of this century, the Met Office Hadley Centre predicts “warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers along with an increase in the frequency and intensity of extremes.” If emissions are not cut, it says severe heatwaves, such as that of 2018, would likely be every other year by 2050. Although summers would generally be drier, there would be an increase in the intensity of heavy rainfalls.

    Why do so many news reports about extreme weather underplay the climate connection?In some media organizations, this appears to be part of a deliberate strategy to undermine climate science and the political impetus to reduce emissions. Habit also plays a part. For decades, journalists have depicted heat waves as a good news story to be casually illustrated with pictures of sunbathers, ice creams, and swimming pools. Excess caution can also make reporters timid about making the link with the climate crisis. On July 14, the climate scientist Ed Hawkins took the BBC to task for this and for failing to keep up with the science. From now on, he suggested journalists use the phrase: “Experts say that climate change is already increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, and many single events have been shown to have been made worse by global warming.”

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