Flood death toll rises to 165 in Germany

The death toll from Germany’s worst floods in living memory rose to 165 on Monday as emergency services continued to comb through decimated towns in search of dozens of people still missing.

A deluge of rain fell over western Germany over two days last week, sending torrents of water rushing down streets, sweeping away trees, cars and sheds, and destroying swathes of housing.

Many victims have been found dead in sodden cellars after attempting to retrieve valuables, while others were swept away by the sheer force of the water.

Emergency workers have been out in force to assess damaged buildings, clear debris and restore gas, electricity and telephone services.

In some areas, police have deployed speedboats and divers to retrieve bodies.

A total of 117 people are now confirmed to have died in Rhineland-Palatinate state, a police spokesman told AFP, with 47 victims in neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia and one in Bavaria.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Armin Laschet, the head of North Rhine-Westphalia state and the frontrunner to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, were on Monday due to visit the Euskirchen, one of the worst-affected towns.

On Sunday, Merkel visited the town of Schuld, calling the devastation “shocking” and calling for the world to speed up efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

The disaster has catapulted climate change to the top of the agenda in Germany, ahead of September 26 polls that will mark the end of Merkel’s 16 years in power.

Experts say that because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, climate change increases the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.

Heavy rainfall has also battered southern Germany, as well as Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Austria in recent days.

At least 31 people have died in Belgium.

The high death toll has also brought scrutiny to Germany’s weather alert system and whether people in the risk zones were notified early enough.

After the floods, German spa town searches for missing
Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany (AFP) July 19, 2021 – In the German spa town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, a red fire truck pumps out flood water from the garages beneath an apartment building through three giant hoses.

Water is churning at a rate of 18,000 litres per minute, but it will be at least two hours before rescue workers can safely enter the garages. Only then can the grim search for bodies begin.

“If we find a body, we’ll call the Bundeswehr (armed forces), the police and the body disposal service,” said Sven Heich, 44, a volunteer firefighter from the town of Kirn, two hours away.

On Friday, he found an elderly woman dead in her ground floor flat.

“They are still searching. We will find dead people for sure,” a resident of the town told AFP, while another said he had witnessed a body being carried away on a cart by soldiers.

The town of 30,000 people, famed for its thermal baths and wellness tourism, is one of the hardest-hit by severe floods that have killed at least 165 people in Germany.

The pavements are littered with broken furniture, while stunned residents wander the streets in rubber boots and mud-stained clothes.

The number of people missing remains unclear, but authorities have been unable to reach more than a thousand in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, mainly because of disrupted communication networks.

– Weeks or months –

Some 4,500 rescue workers from the THW federal volunteer agency were helping with the search for those still missing on Monday, as well as 800 police officers across the region.

An airfield just outside the town was serving as a base for helicopters to pick up bodies.

Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler has set up a call centre manned by 50 investigators who are responsible for logging who is still missing, police spokesman Ulrich Sopart told AFP.

When someone calls, they give the name of the missing person and explain when they last saw them.

The investigators then record what the person was wearing when they were last seen, as well as any defining physical characteristics, before entering them into a database.

Because the mobile phone network is down, people are often reported missing three times: by family, friends and colleagues.

This makes it difficult to give exact numbers but “the number of missing people is growing by the hour”, Sopart said.

Once a person is on the list, the investigators will start trying to track them down by visiting their home or contacting relatives.

The search “could take weeks or months”, Sopart said. “But the longer the person is unaccounted for, the greater the probability that they are dead.”

Bodies can also be identified through DNA, but some may never be found.

“We will not tell the relatives until we are 100 percent certain that a person is dead,” Sopart said.

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