As the floodwaters started to recede rescue workers are racing to find survivors as the devastation left by flooding in western Germany and Belgium is starting to become clear amid a rising death toll that reached at least 183 with many still missing. Around 156 people died in Germany in what is the country’s worst natural disaster in more than half a century. Around 110 of those deaths took place in the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne. In Belgium, most of the dead were found around Liège, a city of around 200,000 people.
“It is terrifying,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday. “The German language can barely describe the devastation that’s taken place.” Earlier, Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said he was “stunned” by the devastation left by the flood. “A lot of people have lost everything they spent their lives building up—their possessions, their home, the roof over their heads,” he said, adding it could take weeks before the full extent of the damage is clear. Officials warned the death toll was likely to rise even further after days of rain turned into devastating floods. Residents and business owners are now struggling to try to deal with the devastation in some places that look unrecognizable. “Everything is completely destroyed. You don’t recognize the scenery,” Michael Lang, the owner of a wine shop in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Ahrweiler, said.
The high death toll in the floods is in part perplexing because the European Flood Awareness System issued an extreme flood warning earlier in the week. That has led many experts to say the entire system put in place to prevent just this type of disaster failed. The floods are now likely to play a key role in the upcoming elections on Sept. 26, when voters will go to the polls to choose who will succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel. Suddenly the floods have turned climate change into one of the main topics of the campaign. “For a long time, chatting about the weather was synonymous with triviality. That’s over now,” Germany’s ARD public television said in its lead editorial on the Friday evening news, notes the New York Times. “The weather is highly political; there is hardly any nonpolitical weather anymore, especially not during an election campaign.”
Amid all the tragedy, a senior German politician came under fire after he was caught on camera joking with colleagues as Steinmeier expressed sympathy for the victims. “Laschet laughs while the country cries,” the newspaper Bild said on its website in reference to Armin Laschet, who is the conservative candidate to succeed Merkel.
Experts have said this type of disaster is likely to start becoming more frequent due to climate change. Some parts of western Europe “received up to two months of rainfall in the space of two days,” World Meteorological Organization spokesperson Clare Nullis said. Although it’s too soon to blame it on warming, the climate crisis has been “increasing the frequency of extreme events while many single events have been shown to be made worse by global warming,” Nullis added.