Merkel sees surreal wreckage as Europe flood death toll tops 180

AFP/Schuld, Germany
Filed on July 18, 2021
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Rhineland-Palatinate State Premier Malu Dreyer speak to people as they stand on a bridge during their visit in the flood-ravaged areas, in Schuld. — AFP

German rescue crews were sifting through rubble to find victims and survivors, often in dangerous conditions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday that she was horrified by the “surreal” devastation in the flood-ravaged region of Germany, as the toll in western Europe reached at least 186 people dead with dozens still missing.

Wearing hiking boots and offering pandemic-safe fist bumps to rescue workers, the veteran leader walked through the village of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate state, one of the two hardest-hit regions in western Germany.

Merkel, who is retiring from politics after September’s elections, listened to the accounts of residents where the swollen Ahr river swept away houses and left debris piled high in the streets.

“It is a surreal, eerie situation,” a visibly shaken Merkel told reporters, as she pledged quick aid to rebuild.

“It is shocking — I can almost say that the German language doesn’t have words for the destruction that’s been wreaked.”

At least 159 people have died since Wednesday in Germany’s worst flooding in living memory, police said.

Merkel was accompanied by Malu Dreyer, premier of Rhineland-Palatinate state which has recorded 112 fatalities.

As they navigated damaged roads together, the chancellor gripped the hand of Dreyer, who has multiple sclerosis, to support her.

At least 27 people have lost their lives in neighbouring Belgium, as heavy rainfall also battered Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

In Austria, residents in the scenic town of Hallein began cleaning up the muddy aftermath after streets were submerged on Saturday.

Pope Francis expressed his “nearness” to the people of Europe’s stricken regions, offering prayers to “sustain the efforts of everyone who are helping those who have suffered serious damage”.

German rescue crews were sifting through rubble to find victims and survivors, often in dangerous conditions. Police deployed speedboats and divers to recover bodies swept away in the torrents.

As the waters began to recede in Rhineland-Palatinate and neighbouring North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), concern shifted south to Germany’s Upper Bavaria region, where torrential rains inundated basements and led rivers and creeks late Saturday to burst their banks.

One person died in Berchtesgadener Land, with more rain expected later on Sunday.

In the eastern state of Saxony, authorities reported a “significant risk situation” in several villages.

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz pledged more than 300 million euros ($354 million) in emergency aid for people who lost homes and businesses, with the cabinet to approve a much larger reconstruction package on Wednesday.

The disaster has increasingly taken on political overtones in Germany, which heads to the polls on September 26 for a general election that will mark the end of Merkel’s 16 years in power.

With experts saying climate change is making extreme weather events more likely, Merkel said leaders “must hurry” to battle global warming.

“We have to be faster in the fight against climate change.”

Armin Laschet, the premier of hard-hit North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) state and frontrunner in the race to succeed Merkel, has also said efforts to tackle global warming should be “speeded up”.

But Laschet scored an own goal Saturday when he was filmed laughing in the devastated town of Erftstadt in NRW, where a landslide was triggered by the floods.

In the footage, Laschet could be seen chatting and joking in the background as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a statement expressing his sympathies to grieving families.

“Laschet laughs while the country cries,” wrote the top-selling Bild daily.

Laschet later apologised on Twitter for the “inappropriate” moment.

As the shock over the severe death toll set in, the German association of cities and towns called for “significant reinforcements” to emergency preparedness and early warning systems.

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