Floods in Germany, Belgium leave more than 60 dead, dozens missing

Climate change now likely to be high on political agenda ahead of September election

More than 60 people have died and dozens of people are missing in Germany and neighbouring Belgium after heavy flooding turned streams and streets into raging torrents, sweeping away cars and causing buildings to collapse.

Rescue workers, facing what one regional leader called a “catastrophic” situation, are working around the clock to rescue residents and recover the dead.

Eight deaths have been reported in Belgium, where the city of Liège began relocating its 200,000 citizens. In Germany, army and rescue workers raced to evacuate areas across the region.

Authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) state said at least 30 people have died while 28 deaths were reported in Rhineland-Palatinate state to the south.


Officials warned that many dams in the state were in danger of bursting.

"There are people dead, missing, many still in danger," said Rhineland-Palatinate state premier, Malu Dreyer.

After more than 48 hours of heavy rain, caused by an extreme low-pressure system over the region, the Rhine and Mosel rivers are swollen, while smaller tributaries throughout the region have been transformed into torrents.

One small town in the Rhineland-Palatinate state, Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, reported 18 deaths after the river Ahr burst its banks, with at least 70 people missing in the wider region.

“It’s like a bad movie,” said Yvonnne Glasner, a resident, to local media. “We were planning to go on our holiday this weekend, now we’re worried we may never be able to live in our home again.”


Another 20 people were reported dead in the Cologne-Bonn region, in NRW, 30km north, on Thursday afternoon.

With thousands of people homeless, Bonn mayor Katja Dorner begged locals to get involved in the rescue effort: "Open your doors to people, the city will link you with people who need help."

The torrential rain and floodwaters have cause massive transport problems and caused electricity outages to at least 250,000 homes.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, on a working visit in Washington, said she was "shaken" by the images from Germany. "My sympathies go out to the relatives of the dead and the missing," she said. "My thanks, from the bottom of my heart, to all the tireless helpers and rescue workers."

The extreme weather has focused attention on NRW state premier Armin Laschet, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader, who hopes to be Germany's next chancellor after September's general election.

“For people here it is a dramatic situation, people are missing, the state police have readied helicopters to help with the search,” he said. “We are doing everything we can as the state to help.”

Political landscape

Extreme weather has changed the German political landscape in the past: political analysts say the robust response of chancellor Gerhard Schroder to extreme floods in 2002 were an important factor in securing his re-election.

Two months before Germany’s federal election, leading politicians agreed on Thursday that the floods and human tragedy were likely to focus minds even further on climate issues – possibly boosting Green Party fortunes.

"Climate change has arrived in Germany," said federal environment minister Svenja Schulze, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). "Such events show the force of climate change and how its consequences can affect us all."

Federal interior minister Horst Seehofer, of Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), agreed that Germany needed to do more to prepare for "the consequences of climate change".

Leading meterologists criticised German public broadcaster ARD, and its regional station, WDR, for broadcasting documentaries on Wednesday evening rather than warning the population of the growing catastrophe.

"It hurts when those who have the means to report on such a weather situation 24/7 do nothing to rescue lives, and instead broadcast s**t and let people drown," tweeted Jorg Kachelmann, one of Germany's best-known meterologists.

Meterology service DWDL accused western Germany’s public broadcaster WDR of “absurd priorities”: broadcasting traffic reports on its radio stations throughout Wednesday evening – but not weather alerts. – Additional reporting: AP

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin