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Live Updates: Europe Flooding Death Toll Passes 100 as Climate Change Worsens Extreme Rainfall


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The death toll has passed 100 and hundreds more people remain missing in Belgium and Germany after strong rains caused rivers to burst and wash away buildings.CreditCredit…Rhein-Erft-Kreis/Cologne District Government, via Associated Press

The scenes of devastation from the floods came from all around Western Europe as the death toll passed 100 on Friday. Roads buckled and washed away. Cars piled atop one another. Houses were inundated to the roof tiles. Frightened residents were being evacuated in the shovels of earth movers.

But nowhere was affected more than Germany, where hundreds were still unaccounted for and the death toll had reached 93 and was expected to rise as rescue workers combed through the debris. At least a dozen were reported dead in Belgium.

On Friday, rain was still falling.

As rescue workers scrambled to reach cutoff villages that are remote on the best of days, the heavy rains — coming after several of the driest years on record for much of Central Europe — had brought some of the most severe flooding in decades.

Extreme downpours like the ones that occurred in Germany are among the most visible and damaging signs that the climate is changing as a result of warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have found that they are now occurring more frequently, and scientists point to a simple reason: A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, which creates extreme rainfall.

In Central Europe rescue efforts were hampered, with electricity and communications networks were down, roads and bridges washed out, and drinking water scarce. The worst hit were thinly populated, rural areas.

In the city of Schleitheim, Switzerland, where a river burst its banks, residents recorded videos of cars being washed through the streets in a swirling flood of muddy water and debris.

Germans struggled even to grasp the scale of the calamity in their country. Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her shock and solidarity from Washington, where she was visiting the White House. Politicians of all stripes called for a truce in the German election campaign. The focus was on how to deal with a disaster that was growing by the hour, with thousands left homeless, in addition to the missing.

In Belgium, the Meuse river overflowed its banks, flooding villages and the center of Liège, leaving thousands without power. The official death toll stands at 20 dead and 20 missing, the authorities said.

“We are still waiting for the final assessment, but these floods could have been the most disastrous that our country has ever known,” Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s prime minister said on Friday.

Relatives of those missing grappled with the fear of the unknown. The authorities in the Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate said late Thursday that 1,300 people remained unaccounted for in their region, where the Ahr river swelled to an angry torrent late Wednesday, ripping through the towns and villages that hugged its banks.

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Roger Lewentz, Rhineland-Palatinate’s interior minister, was unable to give an exact number of missing in his state.

“We do not yet know for sure whether some of them may be on vacation or simply unavailable. After all, the power and telephone connections are down in many affected locations,” Mr. Lewentz told Der Spiegel newsmagazine.

One of the places in Germany hardest hit by the flooding was tiny Schuld, where the destruction arrived with remarkable speed in the once-tidy village. After the river swelled, vehicles bobbed like bath toys, six houses collapsed and half of those that remained standing had gaping holes torn by floating debris.

“It went so fast. You tried to do something, and it was already too late,” a resident of Schuld told Germany’s ARD public television.

At least 50 people were confirmed dead in the Ahrweiler district, where torrents of water rushed through towns and villages, washing away cars, homes and businesses.

In Sinzig, a town in the district, efforts to evacuate a care home for people with severe disabilities came just moments before the gushing waters swept through the lower levels, killing 12 of the residents.

In a village near Cologne, muddy waters on Friday washed several houses away, leaving rescue workers helpless. The authorities there released photographs showing a large, dark sinkhole where the saturated earth appeared to have given way, taking homes and buildings with it.

Assessing the damage in the town of Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, on Friday.
Credit…Sebastien Bozon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Three houses and part of a 19th-century castle collapsed in surging waters on Friday in the German town of Erftstadt-Blessem, southwest of Cologne, where the swollen Erft River inundated the city, setting off a landslide.

The regional authorities said that people who had returned to check on their homes despite warnings were stranded in the town and had to be rescued by boat.

“We keep getting calls from people who ignored the warnings and went back to their homes in the endangered area, or never left them,” said Dirk Schneemann, a spokesman for the Cologne regional district. “Many people are still in their homes. We are not able to reach all of them.”

The local hospital and several nursing homes had to be evacuated, electricity was still cut off and cellphone service was spotty, he said. Many people were missing.

“We expect there to be many dead, but we do not know,” said Herbert Reul, the interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia State, which includes Erftstadt-Blessem.

Spinghar Safi fled the town with his family on Thursday after the fire brigade warned that the rising waters could threaten his home. He said that lower-lying homes several feet below his house had already flooded by the time he left.

“Many homes are underwater, and many others have collapsed,” he said in a telephone interview from a cousin’s home in a nearby town where he and his family were taking shelter.

They first gathered at a central location where firefighters and rescue workers said they would collect people, but after waiting for about four hours, Mr. Safi, an Afghan who came to Germany as a refugee, decided to wade through calf-deep water out of the town to reach his cousin’s home on foot.

“I have lived in Erftstadt for 15 years, and I have never seen such a thing in my life,” he said. “Not in Afghanistan and not here.”

The overflowing Maas River near Aasterberg, the Netherlands, on Friday.
Credit…Sem Van Der Wal/EPA, via Shutterstock

A breach in the dike along the Juliana Canal in the southern Netherlands on Friday was closed by the Dutch military by dumping hundreds of sandbags into the growing hole. Hours before, thousands had been told to evacuate after the dike was breached along the canal, a 22-mile waterway that regulates the Maas River.

The river’s water level is at heights not witnessed since 1911, the Dutch national broadcaster NOS reported.

That is no small thing is a water-logged country where taming water has been a matter of survival for centuries and the imperative to keep levels under control is inextricably bound up with Dutch identity. Much of the country sits below sea level and is gradually sinking. Climate change has also exacerbated the twin threats of storms and rising tides.

Residents of the villages of Brommelen, Bunde, Geulle and Voulwames were ordered to evacuate immediately, after initially being told to move to higher floors in their homes. About 10,000 people live in the area.

The local authorities said there was “a large hole” in the dike, prompting fears that the entire area would be flooded. While parts of the area were flooded, a disaster was averted after the breach was closed. NOS said the dike was still unstable and continued to be monitored.

Upriver, near the city of Venlo, evacuations were ordered for whole neighborhoods and surrounding villages, in total 10,700 people and 7,100 houses, the municipality said in a tweet. People have until 6 p.m. local time to leave their homes.

Record water levels are moving through the Maas River, prompting evacuations and fresh inspections of dikes along the river that empties into the North Sea. The river is a key waterway for European shipping connections.

Following flooding in recent decades, the Dutch authorities have designated special areas that can be flooded with excess water when critical levels are reached.

The Netherlands has so far been spared much of the death and destruction that this week’s flooding has caused in Germany and Belgium. But in Valkenburg, a city in the south of the Netherlands with about 16,000 residents, damage was severe. Hundreds of houses were without power, and the center of the city was flooded.

“The damage is incalculable,” Mayor Daan Prevoo of Valkenburg told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper. He predicted that repairs would take weeks.

Rowing a boat down a flooded residential street in Angleur, on the outskirts of Liège, Belgium, on Friday.
Credit…Valentin Bianchi/Associated Press

In Liège, Belgium’s third-largest city, much of the early panic eased on Friday as residents said the waters of the Meuse river seemed to recede, at least a bit.

Fears that a major dam might break led the mayor to call for parts of the city to be evacuated late Thursday. But on Friday, people were allowed back, though they were told to stay away from the river, which was still lapping over its banks.

“The situation is now under control, and people can return to their homes,” Laurence Comminette, the spokeswoman for the mayor, said in an interview. “Of course not everyone can go back, because many homes have been destroyed. But there is no longer an imminent danger of more flooding.”

Georges Lousberg, 78, said he thought the crisis was largely over in the city. “It did not rain much today, and the weather is supposed to be better the rest of the week.”

He said there had been times when the Meuse was even higher, especially before walls were built along its banks. “The worst flooding was in 1926,” he said.

Prasanta Char, 34, a postdoctoral student in physics at the University of Liège, said he had been anxious about rain overnight after the mayor’s evacuation call.

He had gone looking to buy water, but had a hard time because so many stores were closed. He finally found a small convenience store in the shuttered city.

“It’s much worse in Germany, and a lot of the roads are shut and the trains are stopped,” he said, “I’m still a bit anxious about rain, but today it seems better.”

The village of Schuld, Germany, on Thursday.
Credit…Sascha Steinbach/EPA, via Shutterstock

The devastation in Europe caused by the severe weather came just days after the European Union announced an ambitious blueprint to pivot away from fossil fuels over the next nine years as part of plans to make the 27-country bloc carbon-neutral by 2050. Environmental activists and politicians were quick to draw parallels between the flooding and the effects of climate change.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, said on Friday that the flooding was a clear indication of climate change.

“It is the intensity and the length of the events that science tells us this is a clear indication of climate change,” Ms. von der Leyen said. “It shows the urgency to act.”

Flooding is a complex phenomenon with many causes, including land development and ground conditions. While linking climate change to a single flood event requires extensive scientific analysis, climate change, which is already causing heavier rainfall in many storms, is an increasingly important part of the mix. Warmer atmosphere holds, and releases, more water, whether in the form of rain or heavy winter snowpack.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s president, also blamed climate change for the floods: “Only when we take action against climate change can we keep the events that we are now experiencing within limits,” he said in a televised statement from Berlin.

The impact of climate change is one of the issues that has been fiercely debated in Germany before the September elections in which the Greens party is in the running for second place, behind the conservative Christian Democrats.

“The catastrophic results of the heavy rain in the past few days are largely homemade,” said Holger Sticht, who heads the regional chapter of Friends of the Earth Germany in North Rhine-Westphalia. He blamed lawmakers and industry for building in floodplains and woodlands. “We urgently need to change course.”

Armin Laschet, the leader of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said at a news conference on Friday, “Our state is experiencing a flood catastrophe of historic scale.”

“We have to make the state more climate-proof,” Mr. Laschet said. “We have to make Germany climate neutral even faster.”

A flooded home in Geulle, the Netherlands, on Wednesday.
Credit…Sem Van Der Wal/ANP, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

National and regional forecasters knew about the risk of flooding days before this week’s deluge made its way across Western Europe with a deadly impact. But despite that advanced knowledge, many people remained in areas that were among the worst affected.

“There should not have been so many deaths from this event,” said Dr. Linda Speight, a hydrometeorologist at the University of Reading in Britain, adding that poor communication about the high risk of flooding had probably contributed to the significant loss of life.

“People were still in their houses when the water came,” Dr. Speight said, “and there was no need for that to happen.”

A system that had been set up by the European Commission after catastrophic flooding across Europe in 2002 is supposed to coordinate alerts across the region. And on Monday it issued an “extreme” flood warning when weather models indicated the severity of the storm that eventually set off the flooding.

That sort of information is passed on to countries’ national weather services, which then typically use localized alert systems to warn residents of the pending risk. But the number of people caught up in this week’s flooding suggests that many who live in the inundated towns and villages had not grasped the gravity of the situation until it was too late.

Although the accuracy of weather forecasting has increased significantly over the last decade, the communication side still lags.

“The warning system needs to, you know, make it clear to people: It will affect you. You have received this warning because you’re at risk of flooding. You need to do something now,” Dr. Speight said.

As a result of climate change, extreme weather events have become more common, and Dr. Speight said that this type of severe flooding would become increasingly likely. So when countries talk about building a climate-resilient future, she said, an effective flood warning service must be a key part of that.

“We can’t really stop the flood,” she said. “There’s still going to be damage to all those properties — the water still has got to go somewhere. But we need to get better at dealing with it. And the key way to do that is going to be to have an effective warning service to get people to move their property and themselves out of the way when the water is coming.”

A resident cleaning the streets of Ahrweiler-Bad Neenah, Germany, after flooding on Thursday.
Credit…Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Forecasts predicting improved weather for Western Europe over the weekend offered some hope amid the deluge, potentially aiding search-and-rescue efforts in areas devastated by floods.

The heavy rain in Germany in the Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate was forecast to let up later Friday and over the weekend, after flooding left 1,300 people unaccounted for in the region. Emergency workers put sandbags in place to stem the rising waters in the region’s remote villages, like Schuld, where heavy flows of water washed away six homes and left more close to collapse.

On Saturday and Sunday, there is about a 20 percent chance of rain in that area, and temperatures are expected to rise above 70 degrees Fahrenheit with partial sunshine later in the day, according to Weather.com. Conditions are likewise expected to improve in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, also in western Germany, where at least 43 people have died in the flooding.

Andreas Friedrich, a meteorologist for Germany’s national weather service, said that dry, sunny weather was likely over the next few days in the western states hit by floods. The weather service has issued a warning about possible floods in the touristy area of southeastern Germany, north of the Alps, over the weekend, but conditions are not expected to be as bad as they were in the western part of the country, he said.

In Belgium, the weather is also expected to clear up over the weekend. The Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium forecast only light rain in the hilly Ardennes region, which experienced heavy flooding over the past few days. In Liège, which was also hard hit, there was a 3 percent chance of precipitation on Saturday, according to the AccuWeather forecasting service.

Alex Dewalque, a spokesman for the meteorological institute, said water levels in the worst-hit parts of Belgium were already falling, making it easier for emergency workers to rescue stranded people and search for casualties. He said the coming days would be much drier and with warmer temperatures, and that there were no flood warnings.

More rain was expected in Switzerland’s northern Alps on Friday, however, and officials warned of more potential flooding in parts of the country. Lake Lucerne reached critical levels, forcing the closing of some bridges and roadways.

Sarah Schöpfer, a meteorologist at Switzerland’s Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology MeteoSwiss, said she expected rainfall over the affected areas of Switzerland to lighten.

“We expect that tonight the precipitation activity weakens further and tomorrow it mainly affects the eastern Swiss Alps (mainly regions that did not get the highest amounts of rain during the last few days),” she said in an email. “So apart from the last showers today and tomorrow, the following days will be dry.”


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