Germany triggered a military disaster alert on Friday after the catastrophic flood that has claimed at least 100 lives, with at least 1,300 still missing and many thousands more homeless.
Aerial images of the worst-hit areas showed torrents of floodwater washing away houses and roads, smashing abandoned boats and mobile homes against stone bridges.
Some 44 people are known to have died in North Rhine Westphalia and 63 in neighbouring Rhineland Palatinate in the west and southwest of Germany. Helicopter rescue teams are winching to safety people trapped in subsiding homes; other teams are working to restore roads and mobile phone coverage.
As rain eased and flood waters began to retreat on Friday, the town of Schuld in southwestern Germany was revealed as a mud-filled disaster zone some locals said was worse than the second World War.
“I’ve been here for 80 years, but never seen anything like this,” said one elderly man in the village of Schuld, to local radio.
With just 660 residents, the village has survived the plague and the 30 Years’ War. On Wednesday evening the River Ahr burst its banks and smashed half a dozen half-timbered houses to matchsticks, washing away other houses’ foundations.
Residents of a nearby special needs care home were less fortunate: 12 people died when water from the local river – 100m away – rushed into their rooms.
“At the fire brigade’s request the nightwatchman went went to the building next door but couldn’t get back in and couldn’t offer them any more help,” said Stefan Möller, director of the home.
Some 60km northwest in Erftstadt, drone images showed a slow-motion disaster on Friday: a local gravel quarry, collapsing due to flood water and taking local buildings with it.
“At the moment you only cry,” said local woman Marine Olegschläger. “The mass of water came in just half an hour, we’ve no home or garden anymore.”
Local pastor Albrecht Rüpke said people were traumatised by the sudden floodwaters on Wednesday evenings: “They are trying to contact friends and family, can’t get through and simply don’t know how they are.”
German political leaders have reacted with shock at the sudden flood, considered the worst in a century.
“It is a tragedy that so many lost their lives, it leaves me stunned,” said president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, telling survivors and families of the dead that “your fate strikes in my heart”.
Federal defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer triggered Germany’s military disaster alarm on Friday, a rare move indicative of the gravity of the situation, lifting tight post-war restrictions on army deployment at home.
“This means that decisions can be taken on the ground where they are needed,” she said. “I think in such a situation, decentralisation is important and will be a key to success.”
Heavy flooding in neighbouring France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands has forced evacuations of thousands.
A dyke broke in the Netherlands, forcing thousands of people to evacuate in the south of the low-lying country, which was inundated as swollen waters arrived downstream from Germany and Belgium.
At least 23 people were killed in the Wallonia region of Belgium and prime minister Alexander De Croo declared Tuesday would be a day of national mourning "to reflect on the heavy human toll, but also to pay tribute to the demonstrations of solidarity and the feeling of unity in the population".
“This may be the most catastrophic flooding our country has ever seen,” he told reporters.
Footage from the disaster zone of Pepinster, between Liège and Aachen, showed people scrambling to escape from the roof of a house as its lower floors collapsed into swirling floodwaters below.