Rescuers rush to save hundreds trapped by flooding in Europe as death toll tops 125

Emergency workers in western Germany and Belgium rushed Friday to rescue hundreds of people threatened by historic floods, including residents of a town where the ground gave way beneath their homes, as the disaster claimed dozens more lives and search for the missing went on.

German military deploys more than 850 troops; Italy sends firefighters to Belgium

Deadly floods after torrential rainfall in western Europe

1 year ago
Duration 1:47
In parts of western Europe, two days of torrential rain has led to deadly floods, with Germany hit especially hard.

In one flooded German town, the ground collapsed under family homes. In another, floodwaters swept through an assisted living centre, killing 12.

Rescue workers across Germany and Belgium rushed Friday to prevent more deaths from the continent's worst flooding in years as the disaster claimed dozens more lives and the search went on for hundreds of missing people.

The death toll stood at more than 125.

Fuelled by days of heavy rain, the floodwaters also left thousands of Germans homeless after their dwellings were destroyed or deemed to be at risk, and elected officials began to worry about the lingering economic effects from lost homes and businesses.

Elsewhere in Europe, dikes on swollen rivers were at risk of collapsing, and crews raced to reinforce flood barriers.

Debris hangs on a damaged bridge over the Ahr river in Schuld, Germany, on Friday. (Michael Probst/The Associated Press)

Sixty-three people died in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, including 12 residents of an assisted living facility for disabled people in the town of Sinzig who were surprised by a sudden rush of water from the nearby Ahr River, authorities said.

In neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia state, the number of dead stood at 43, but officials warned that it could increase.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was "stunned" by the devastation and pledged support to the families of those killed and to cities and towns facing significant damage.

"In the hour of need, our country stands together," Steinmeier said in a statement.

"It's important that we show solidarity for those from whom the flood has taken everything."

Rescuers are seen at a flooded courtyard in Erfstadt, Germany, on Friday. (Marius Becker/dpa/The Associated Press)

A harrowing rescue effort unfolded in the German town of Erftstadt, southwest of Cologne, where people were trapped when the ground gave way and their homes collapsed.

Fifty people were rescued from their houses, county administrator Frank Rock told German broadcaster n-tv.

Aerial photos showed what appeared to be a massive landslide at a gravel pit on the town's edge.

An aerial view of Erftstadt is seen on Friday. (Rhein-Erft-Kreis via AP)

"One has to assume that under the circumstances some people didn't manage to escape," Rock said.

Authorities cautioned that the large number of missing could stem from duplicated reports and difficulties reaching people because of closed roads and disrupted phone service.

After Germany, where the death toll stood at 106, Belgium was the hardest hit.

A person walks up the stairs in their damaged house in Ensival, Vervier, Belgium, on Friday. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

The country had confirmed the deaths of 20 people, with another 20 still missing, Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden told the VRT network Friday.

Several dikes on the Meuse River that runs from Belgium into the Netherlands were at risk of collapsing, Verlinden said. Authorities in the southern Dutch town of Venlo evacuated 200 hospital patients due to the river's looming threat.

The governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, who hopes to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel as the nation's leader after Germany's election on Sept. 26, said the disaster had caused immense economic damage to the country's most densely populated state.

People wade through a flooded street in Angleur, Province of Liege, Belgium, on Friday. (Valentin Bianchi/The Associated Press)

"The floods have literally pulled the ground from beneath many people's feet," Gov. Armin Laschet said at a news conference.

"They lost their houses, farms or businesses."

Federal and state officials have pledged financial aid to the affect areas.

'Climate change isn't abstract anymore'

Malu Dreyer, the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state, said the disaster showed the need to speed up efforts to curb global warming.

She accused Laschet and Merkel's center-right Union bloc of hindering efforts to achieve greater greenhouse gas reductions in Germany, Europe's biggest economy and a major emitter of planet-warming gases.

"Climate change isn't abstract anymore. We are experiencing it up close and painfully," she told the Funke media group.

Damaged cars lie in the rubble in an area completely destroyed by the floods in Erftstadt on Friday. (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

Steinmeier, the German president, repeated his calls for greater efforts to combat global warming.

"Only if we decisively take up the fight against climate change will we be able to limit the extreme weather conditions we are now experiencing," he said.

Experts say such disasters could become more common in the future.

A person carries bags in a street devastated by floods in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, on Friday. (Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images)

"Some parts of Western Europe ... received up to two months of rainfall in the space of two days. What made it worse is that the soils were already saturated by previous rainfall," World Meteorological Organization spokesperson Clare Nullis said.

While she said it was too soon to blame the floods and preceding heat wave on rising global temperatures, Nullis added: "Climate change is already increasing the frequency of extreme events. And many single events have been shown to be made worse by global warming."

Troops deployed

The German military had deployed more than 850 troops to help with flood efforts, and the need for help is growing, Defense Ministry spokesman Arne Collatz said. He said the ministry had triggered a "military disaster alarm."

Italy sent civil protection officials, firefighters and rescue dinghies to Belgium to help in the search for missing people.

In the southern Dutch province of Limburg, which also has been hit hard by flooding, troops piled sandbags to strengthen a 1.1-kilometre stretch of dike along the Maas River, and police helped evacuate low-lying neighbourhoods.

Residents stand next to stacked sandbags by the river Meuse as it continues to rise in Arcen, Netherlands, on Friday. (Eva Plevier/Reuters)

Caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the government was officially declaring flooded regions disaster areas, making businesses and residents eligible for compensation.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander visited the region Thursday night and called the scenes "heartbreaking."

Meanwhile, heavy rain in Switzerland caused several rivers and lakes to burst their banks.

Water flows through the Hagneck dam between the Aare and the Bielersee in Hagneck, Switzerland, on Friday. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

Public broadcaster SRF reported that a flash flood swept away cars, flooded basements and destroyed small bridges late Thursday in the northern villages of Schleitheim und Beggingen.

Erik Schulz, the mayor of the hard-hit German city of Hagen, 50 kilometres northeast of Cologne, said a wave of other regions and ordinary citizens offered to help.

"We have many, many citizens saying `I can offer a place to stay. Where can I go to help? ... Where can I bring my shovel and bucket?"' he told n-tv.

"The city is standing together, and you can feel that."