Merkel visits areas devastated by floods in Germany as death toll in Europe exceeds 180

Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit flood-ravaged areas in Germany on Sunday to assess the damage and meet survivors after days of extreme rainfall in Western Europe left at least 183 dead and dozens missing.

Merkel is scheduled to travel to the village of Schuld in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, one of the two worst-hit regions in western Germany, where the swollen River Ahr swept away homes and left debris high in the streets.

At least 156 people have died in Germany’s worst flooding in living memory since Wednesday, police said in an update on Sunday morning.

In Rhineland-Palatinate alone, police reported 110 dead and 670 injured.

At least 27 people were also killed in neighboring Belgium.

Rescue teams in both countries sift through the rubble to find victims, often in dangerous conditions.

The historic showers also hit Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

As waters in Rhineland-Palatinate and neighboring North Rhine-Westphalia began to recede, concerns shifted south to Germany’s region of Upper Bavaria, where heavy rains flooded cellars and swelled rivers and creeks at the end of Saturday.

One person died in Berchtesgadener Land, a spokeswoman for the Bavarian district told AFP.

In Austria, aid workers in the regions of Salzburg and Tyrol were alert to flooding. The historic center of Hallein, near the German border, was flooded.

“Heavy rains and storms unfortunately cause serious damage in several places in Austria,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Twitter.

Merkel called the floods a “tragedy” and promised federal government support for affected municipalities in Germany.

Merkel spoke with US President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday and said her “heart goes out to all those who have lost their loved ones in this catastrophe”.

The government has said it is working to set up a special relief fund, with damage expected to amount to several billion euros.

‘Sorry’ for laughing

The disaster has taken on an increasingly political undertone in Germany, which heads to the polls on September 26 for general elections that will mark the end of Merkel’s 16 years in power.

With experts saying climate change is making extreme weather events like this one more likely, candidates vying to succeed the veteran leader have called for more climate action.

Armin Laschet, the prime minister of the hard-hit state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and frontrunner in the race for the chancellery, said efforts to tackle global warming must be “accelerated”.

But Laschet, who heads Merkel’s CDU party that currently heads the polls, scored an own goal on Saturday when he was filmed laughing in the devastated city of Erftstadt in NRW, where a landslide was triggered by the flooding.

The footage showed Laschet talking and joking in the background as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier issued a statement expressing his condolences to grieving families.

“Laschet laughs while the country cries,” wrote the best-selling daily Bild.

Laschet later apologized on Twitter for the “inappropriate” moment.

Divers, armored vehicles

The magnitude of the flooding effects gradually became apparent in Germany, with damaged buildings assessed, some of which will require demolition, and efforts are being made to restore gas, electricity and telephone services.

In some areas, soldiers used armored vehicles to clear the debris clogging streets.

In NRW, divers were sent to search submerged homes and vehicles.

Local authorities in NRW and Rhineland-Palatinate said dozens of people remain missing in both states.

However, they stressed that disruption to communications networks made an accurate assessment difficult and the true number of missing persons could be lower.

Roger Lewentz, Rhineland-Palatinate interior minister, said more than 670 people were injured.

“I’ve lived here all my life, I was born here and I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Gregor Degen, a baker in the ruined spa town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, near Schuld.

Across the border in Belgium, the death toll has risen to 27 and many people are still missing.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Prime Minister Alexander de Croo visited the flooded areas of Rochefort and Pepinster together on Saturday.

“Europe is with you,” von der Leyen tweeted afterwards. “We are with you in mourning and we will be with you in rebuilding.”

Belgium has declared Tuesday as a day of official mourning.


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