At least 33 people have died and dozens are missing in the worst flooding Germany has seen in years following days of heavy rain that senior politicians have linked to climate change.
Twenty people died in and around the Rhine city of Cologne, with two of them drowning in their own flooded cellars.
Rivers burst their banks across large parts of western Germany and swept away houses standing in their path. Several towns, including Altena near Wuppertal, were cut off from the outside world, rail services were disrupted and mobile phone coverage was adversely affected across the region. Hospitals in the Rhine area towns of Leverkusen and Eschweiler had to be evacuated.
Other countries also experienced flooding. In Belgium, two men died due to torrential rain and a 15-year-old girl was reported missing after being swept away by floodwater. Around a dozen houses collapsed in Pepinster after the river Vesdre broke its banks, and residents were evacuated from more than 1,000 homes.
Meteorologists blamed a low-pressure weather system — “Bernd” — that brought hot and wet Mediterranean air towards north and east Germany and was wedged in by two high-pressure areas which prevented it moving on.
“In the last two days some areas recorded more than 200 litres of rain per square meter,” said Mark Eisenmann, a meteorologist with German TV channel ARD. “Extreme levels [of rain] were reached that were unprecedented. And the effects were accordingly dramatic.”
He said the volume of rain was so great “that it was no longer being absorbed by the rivers [or] the soil”.
German TV news showed scenes of devastation, with town centres littered with the debris of ruined houses, uprooted tree-trunks and overturned cars. Helicopters were shown winching people to safety from treetops and the rooves of their houses as the floodwater surged around them.
Five people died and dozens were missing in and around Ahrweiler, in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Heavy rain there turned the river Ahr, which flows into the Rhine, into a gushing torrent which destroyed around 100 houses and flooded and damaged 10 schools. The damage was particularly striking In Schuld, a small town on the Ahr near the border with Belgium, where four houses were completely swept away by the flood.
Angela Merkel, chancellor, who is in the US for talks with Joe Biden, tweeted that she was “shocked by the catastrophe that so many people have had to endure in the flooded areas”. She expressed sympathy for the victims and their families and thanked the “tireless” emergency services “from the bottom of my heart”.
“There are dead people, there are people missing, there are many who are still in danger,” said Malu Dreyer, governor of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. “It’s really devastating.”
By lunchtime on Thursday 33 people had been confirmed dead and dozens were still missing. In the city of Cologne, two people were discovered dead in their flooded cellars.
Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and the conservative candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor, linked the floods to climate change.
“We will be faced with such events over and over, and that means we need to speed up climate protection measures — on the European, federal and global level, because climate change isn’t confined to one state,” he said while on a visit to the town of Hagen, one of those affected by the flooding.