Death toll tops 160 following devastating flooding in western Europe
Floodwaters receding across much of affected regions reveal extent of damage
Rescue workers laboured to deal with damage laid bare by receding water on Saturday as the death toll from disastrous flooding in western Europe rose above 160 and thoughts turned to the lengthy job of rebuilding devastated communities.
The death toll in western Germany's Rhineland-Palatinate state, home to the badly hit Ahrweiler county, rose to 98. Another 43 people were confirmed dead in neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia state. Belgium's national crisis centre said the country's confirmed death toll rose to 27.
Days of heavy rain turned normally minor rivers and streams into raging torrents this week and caused the disastrous flooding that swept away cars, engulfed homes and trapped residents.
Immediately after the floods hit on Wednesday and Thursday, German authorities listed large numbers of people as missing — something apparently caused in large part by confusion, multiple reporting and communications difficulties in the affected areas.
By Saturday, authorities still feared finding more people dead but said numbers unaccounted for had dropped constantly, without offering specific figures.
In Belgium, 103 people were listed on Saturday as missing, but the crisis centre said lost or uncharged cellphones and people taken to hospitals without identification who hadn't had an opportunity to contact relatives were believed to be factors in the tally.
Meanwhile, the receding floodwaters eased access across much of the affected regions and revealed the extent of the damage.
"A lot of people have lost everything they spent their lives building up," German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after visiting the town of Erftstadt, southwest of Cologne.
Steinmeier said people in the affected areas are counting on continuing support.
"Many people here in these regions have nothing left but their hope, and we must not disappoint this hope," he said.
A harrowing rescue effort unfolded in Erftstadt on Friday, when the ground in a neighbourhood gave way, At least three houses and part of a mansion in the town's Blessem district collapsed.
The German military used armoured vehicles to clear cars and trucks on a nearby road, some of which remained at least partly submerged. Officials feared some people didn't manage to escape in Erftstadt, but no casualties were confirmed by Saturday afternoon.
In the Ahrweiler area, police warned of a potential risk from downed power lines and urged curious visitors to stay away. They complained on Twitter that would-be sightseers were blocking some roads.
About 700 people were evacuated from part of the German town of Wassenberg after the breach of a dike on the Rur river.
In eastern Belgium, train lines and roads remained blocked in many areas.
A resident of the Belgian town of Herk-de-Stad said she put off sleeping to try to empty her house of water.
"We have been pumping all night long trying to get the water out of the house," Elke Lenaerts told broadcaster VTM on Saturday.
Parts of the southern Netherlands also experienced heavy flooding, though thousands of residents were allowed to return home after being evacuated on Thursday and Friday.
Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that "first, there was corona, now these floods, and soon people will have to work on cleanup and recovery."
An emergency dike in the Dutch town of Horn didn't hold, and some houses were inundated. Authorities issued a warning to stay off the Maas river because of debris. Rescuers worked to save a cow stuck neck deep in muddy waters.
At the other end of Germany, there was flooding Saturday evening following torrential rain in the Saechsische Schweiz area near Dresden and across the border in the Czech Republic.
Roads, basements and railroad tracks flooded, disrupting train service between the Czech town of Decin and Bad Schandau, Germany. A summer camp for children on the Czech side had to be evacuated.