At least 118 people have died in the devastating floods that have engulfed parts of Europe, while the search continues for those still missing after raging waters turned once picture-postcard landscapes and historic towns into disaster areas.
Heavy rainfall and torrents of muddy water wreaked havoc across towns and villages in Western Europe, including portions of France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, but western Germany and eastern Belgium were the areas worst affected.
Streets turned into rivers in the early hours of Thursday, as high waters washed away cars and buildings, knocked out power and communication lines, blocked access roads and left residents stranded.
The epicentre of the floods was in western Germany, where authorities have cautioned that hundreds of people remain unaccounted for.
Sixty deaths were confirmed in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate and 43 in the state of North Rhine Westphalia, bringing the national tally to 103.
Across the border, in Belgium, the toll stood at 15.
There are fears more victims will be found as waters ebb in the devastated region and clean-up and salvage operations are stepped up. Around 900 army soldiers have joined rescue workers in Germany.
As search-and-rescue efforts continued, authorities were trying to account for residents from hard-hit communities but communication problems were stalling their efforts.
In one case, authorities said late Thursday about 1,300 people were missing in Rhineland-Palatinate’s largely rural district of Areole. However, the stalled mobile network and flooded roads and railways are hampering efforts to reach residents, so the actual number could eventually fall.
Safe drinking water is also now in short supply in parts of the crisis-hit region. Meanwhile, many people are having to be rescued by boat, and a gas leak complicated rescue work in the town of Erftstadt, in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Among the fatalities in Germany were 12 residents of a dormitory for people with intellectual disabilities in the town of Sinzig.
A local official that oversees the facility said water reached the ceiling of the ground floor level “within a minute.” A night guard on duty managed to save several residents by helping them get to the floor above, said Matthias Mandos.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was “stunned” and that he would travel to the flood regions.
“I will get a picture of the situation on the ground and above all seek talks with first responders and those affected,” Steinmeier said, describing the floods and many deaths as a tragedy.
He called for tougher action to combat climate change and limit such extreme weather.
The historic flooding has suddenly propelled climate change to the centre stage of Germany’s September national election campaign.
German party leaders across the political spectrum have seized on the floods, the days of torrential rain and recent bout of high temperatures to call on the nation to address the challenges of global warming.
Armin Laschet, the frontrunner aiming to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel in the September 26 elections, blamed the unprecedented floods and hefty rainfall on global warming.
Laschet, who is also North-Rhine Westphalia’s premier, once appeared to play down the consequences of climate change several years ago.
But on Thursday he declared: “We will be faced with such events over and over, and that means we need to speed up climate protection measures… because climate change isn’t confined to one state.”
The situation remained tense at midday on Friday.
Several houses were swept away by the torrent of brown water in the small river-side village of Schuld, with numerous other buildings severely damaged and many regional businesses now fighting for survival.
Another disaster zone in focus on Friday was the area of Erftstadt-Blessem, outside Cologne, where large landslides swept away houses and cars.
Across the border in Belgium, the flood death toll rose to 15 at the latest count, Belga news agency reported on Friday, after more bodies were found overnight in the southern Wallonia region.
The premier of the badly-affected Francophone region, Elio Di Rupio, said lessons would have to be learned.
“Houses are collapsing due to the force of the water,” he told RTBF radio. “But the fact that we are not able to reach people who are affected, that is a lesson we must learn.”
While weather conditions began to improve and rain is now set to dissipate, the focus remained on the rising Meuse river which runs through cities including Liege and Namur.
Rail travel was disrupted throughout Wallonia. More than 20,000 people were left without electricity on Thursday evening, Belga reported citing local energy authorities.