Severe flooding leaves more than 60 dead in Germany, Belgium
'There are people dead. There are people missing. There are many who are still in danger,' says local governor
More than 60 people have died and dozens were missing Thursday as severe flooding in Germany and Belgium turned streams and streets into raging torrents that swept away cars and caused houses to collapse.
Among those killed were nine residents of an assisted living facility for people with disabilities and two firefighters involved in rescue efforts across the region.
"I grieve for those who have lost their lives in this disaster," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a visit to Washington, D.C., expressing shock at the scope of the flooding.
Speaking alongside U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House, Merkel said her thoughts were with all those who had lost loved ones or were still searching for them.
"I fear the full extent of this tragedy will only be seen in the coming days," she said.
Biden likewise paid his condolences for the devastating loss of life and the destruction due to the flooding.
"Our hearts go out to the families who've lost loved ones," he said.
Authorities said at least 30 people died in North Rhine-Westphalia state and 28 in neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate to the south. Belgian media reported eight deaths in that country.
Recent storms across parts of western Europe made rivers and reservoirs burst their banks, triggering flash floods overnight after the saturated soil couldn't absorb any more water.
Among the worst-hit German villages was Schuld, where several homes collapsed and dozens of people remained unaccounted for.
Rescue operations were hampered by blocked roads and phone and internet outages across the Eifel, a volcanic region of rolling hills and small valleys.
Some villages were reduced to rubble as old brick and timber houses couldn't withstand the sudden rush of water, often carrying trees and other debris as it gushed through narrow streets.
Karl-Heinz Grimm, who had come to help his parents in Schuld, said he had never seen the small Ahr River surge in such a deadly torrent.
"This night, it was like madness," he said.
Dozens of people had to be rescued from the roofs of their houses with inflatable boats and helicopters. Hundreds of soldiers were deployed to assist in the rescue efforts.
"There are people dead, there are people missing, there are many who are still in danger," the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state, Malu Dreyer, told the regional parliament. "We have never seen such a disaster. It's really devastating."
The 52nd Civil Engineer squadron and several volunteers from the U.S. air base at Spangdahlem filled and distributed hundreds of sandbags to help protect homes and businesses in the area, the U.S. European Command said.
River breaks its banks in Belgium
In Belgium, the Vesdre River spilled over its banks and sent water churning through the streets of Pepinster, near Liege, where a rescue operation by firefighters went wrong when a small boat capsized and three elderly people disappeared.
"Unfortunately, they were quickly engulfed," said Mayor Philippe Godin. "I fear they are dead."
In Verviers, the prosecutor's office said several bodies had been found but could not confirm local media reports that four people were killed there.
Major highways were inundated in southern and eastern parts of the country, and the railway said all trains were halted.
In Liege, a city of 200,000, the Meuse River overflowed its banks Thursday and the mayor asked people living nearby to move to higher ground.
The full extent of the damage across the region was still unclear, with many villages cut off by floods and landslides that made roads impassable.
Many of the dead were only discovered after floodwaters receded.
Authorities in the Rhine-Sieg county south of Cologne ordered the evacuation of several villages below the Steinbachtal reservoir amid fears a dam could break.
Rainfall eased later Thursday across Germany, although water levels on the Mosel and Rhine rivers were expected to continue rising.
Troops sent to help Dutch province
In the Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima visited the hard-hit Dutch town of Valkenburg Thursday evening to support residents and emergency services. Flooding turned the main street into a torrent of brown water, inundating homes and businesses.
The Dutch government sent about 70 troops to the southern province of Limburg late Wednesday to help with evacuations and filling sandbags.
Thousands of people in neighbourhoods of the city of Maastricht and other villages along the Maas River — the Dutch name for the Meuse River — were ordered to evacuate Thursday evening amid threats of flooding, and centres were set up to house them.
In northeastern France, heavy rains flooded vegetable fields, many homes and a First World War museum in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon.
The Aire River rose to its highest levels in 30 years in some areas, according to the L'Est Républicain newspaper.
The equivalent of two months of rain has fallen on some areas over two days, according to the French national weather service, with flood warnings issued for 10 regions. No injuries or deaths have been reported.