World

Death toll from flooding in western Europe climbs above 180

German Chancellor Angela Merkel surveyed what she called a "surreal, ghostly" scene in a devastated village on Sunday, pledging quick financial aid and a redoubled political focus on curbing climate change as the death toll from floods in western Europe climbed above 180.

Merkel tours 'surreal' flood scene in German village, vows financial aid, climate action

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and Malu Dreyer, governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state, third from left, are shown on a bridge in Schuld, western Germany, on Sunday during their visit to flood-ravaged areas to survey the damage and meet survivors. (Christof Stache/The Associated Press)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel surveyed what she called a "surreal, ghostly" scene in a devastated village on Sunday, pledging quick financial aid and a redoubled political focus on curbing climate change as the death toll from floods in western Europe climbed above 180.

Merkel toured Schuld, a village on a tight curve of the Ahr river in western Germany, where many buildings were damaged or destroyed by rapidly rising floodwaters Wednesday night.

Although the mayor of Schuld said no one was killed or injured there, many other places weren't so lucky. The death toll in the Ahrweiler area, where Schuld is located, stood at 112. Authorities said people are still missing and they fear the toll may still rise.

In neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany's most populous, 46 people were killed, including four firefighters. Belgium confirmed 31 deaths.

Merkel said she came away from Schuld, still partly strewn with rubble and mud in bright sunshine, with "a real picture of, I must say, the surreal, ghostly situation."

"It is shocking — I would almost say that the German language barely has words for the devastation that has been wreaked," she said at a news conference in a nearby town.

Merkel said authorities will work to "set the world right again in this beautiful region, step by step," and her cabinet will approve an immediate and medium-term financial aid program on Wednesday.

Residents sit among debris in Mariental, western Germany, on Sunday. Severe flooding in the country turned streams and streets into raging, debris-filled torrents that swept away cars and toppled houses. (Boris Roessler/dpa/The Associated Press)

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that more than 300 million euros ($447 million Cdn) will be needed. And he said that officials must start setting up a rebuilding program that, from experience with previous flooding, will be in the billions of euros.

"Thankfully, Germany is a country that can manage this financially," said Merkel, who is stepping down as chancellor following an election in September. "Germany is a strong country and we will stand up to this force of nature in the short term — but also in the medium and long term, through policy that pays more regard to nature and the climate than we did in recent years. That will be necessary too."

Renewed focus on climate change

Climate scientists say the link between extreme weather and global warming is unmistakable and the urgency to do something about climate change undeniable.

Scientists can't yet say for sure whether climate change caused the flooding, but they insist that it certainly exacerbates the extreme weather that has been on show around the world.

A bridge over the Ahr river is shown completely destroyed on Sunday in Ahrweiler, western Germany, where heavy rains have caused mudslides and flooding. (Boris Roessler/dpa/The Associated Press)

"We must get faster in the battle against climate change," Merkel said, pointing to policies already set in motion by Germany and the European Union to cut greenhouse gas emissions. "And nevertheless, the second lesson is that we must pay great attention to adaptation" to climate change.

Investing in fighting climate change is expensive, she said, but failing to do so is even more costly.

"One flood isn't the example of climate change, but if we look at the loss events of recent years, decades, then they are simply more frequent than they were previously — so we must make a great effort," Merkel said.

Although rain has stopped in the worst-affected areas of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, storms and downpours have persisted in other parts of western and central Europe. There was flooding Saturday night in the German-Czech border area, across the country from where last week's floods hit, and in Germany's southeastern corner and over the border in Austria.

WATCH | Officials point to climate change in wake of deadly floods in Europe:

Officials point to climate change after deadly floods in Europe

2 months ago
1:59
As officials tour the devastation from deadly floods in Germany and Belgium, experts are pointing to the role of climate change in heavy rains that led to the flooding. 1:59

About 130 people were evacuated from their homes in Germany's Berchtesgaden area after the Ache River swelled. At least one person was killed. The railway line to Berchtesgaden was closed.

The Berchtesgaden area also is the home of the sliding track in Koenigssee, the site of major international bobsled, skeleton and luge events for more than 50 years. Large segments of that track were destroyed, parts of the concrete chute turned into rubble by the rushing water.

'This flood will leave scars'

A flash flood swept through the nearby Austrian town of Hallein late Saturday, but there were no reports of casualties. Further west, parts of the town of Kufstein were flooded. Heavy rain and storms caused serious damage in several parts of Austria.

In the eastern Belgian town of Pepinster, soldiers and firefighters on Sunday searched the wreckage for any remaining survivors or bodies, according to public broadcaster RTBF. All the houses still standing have been searched, so the effort focused on those that collapsed and in a valley downstream for anyone possibly swept away by the raging torrent.

A resident monitors floodwaters from his garden, where he had been sitting overnight, in the village of Well, the Netherlands, on Sunday. (Remko de Waal/ANP/AFP/Getty Images)

The ground in the town remains unstable, and several more houses could collapse. "We have to be careful with every step we take," fire officer Olivier Jiust was quoted as saying.

Pope Francis prayed for the flood victims and in support of the "efforts of all to help those who suffered great damage."

"I express my closeness to the populations of Germany, Belgium and Holland, hit by catastrophic flooding," he said Sunday in his first public appearance to the faithful in St. Peter's Square after major surgery. "May the Lord welcome the deceased and comfort the family members."

Residents in the devastated areas will be needing support and comfort for a long time yet.

"This flood will leave scars on the people of Schuld — scars that you don't forget, that can't be overcome, because our lives changed from one day to the next," Mayor Helmut Lussi said, breaking into sobs as he spoke.

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