BERLIN – After a day of frantic rescue efforts and orders to evacuate cities that were quickly filling with water released from violent storms, German authorities said late Thursday that after confirming numerous deaths, they were unable, at least 1,300 people to explain.
That staggering number was announced after rapidly flowing water from swollen rivers poured through towns and villages in two western German states, where news outlets said more than 80 people had died and other fatalities were expected in the hardest-hit regions.
With communication severely hampered, the authorities hoped the missing people would be safe, if out of reach. But the storms and floods have already proven deadly.
At least 11 other people are believed to have died in Belgium, according to the authorities, who also ordered residents of downtown Liege to evacuate when the Meuse, which flows through the center, overflowed.
The storms and the resulting floods have also struck the neighboring countries of Switzerland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, as a slowly moving weather system threatened to bring even more rain to the flooded region overnight and until Friday.
The devastation caused by the storm came just days after the European Union announced an ambitious plan to move away from fossil fuels over the next nine years in order to make the 27-country bloc climate-neutral by 2050. Early on, politicians drew parallels between floods and the effects of climate change.
But the immediate focus on Thursday remained the rescue effort, with hundreds of firefighters, rescue workers and soldiers working to rescue people from the upper floors and roofs of their homes, filling sandbags to contain rising waters and looking for missing people.
One of the hardest hit regions was the German district of Ahrweiler, where flash floods flooded the village of Schuld, washed away six houses and left several more shortly before the collapse. At least 50 people died in the Ahrweiler district, the police said.
With so many missing, the district authority said late Thursday that the death toll is expected to rise. “In view of the complexity of the amount of damage, a final assessment of the situation is currently not possible,” it said in a press release.
“We do not have exact death numbers, but we can say that we have many people who fell victim to this flood,” said Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the most severely affected federal states in Germany.
“Many people lost everything they owned after the mud flowed into their homes,” said Laschet, who will replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor in the federal elections on September 26th.
The floods in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate were among the worst in decades, after days of continuous rain sank more water than the soil and sewer system could absorb.
Police asked people to upload pictures of the floods to help them find it.
The police in North Rhine-Westphalia reported at least 30 deaths, with at least 15 people being known in the Euskirchen district south of Düsseldorf. Many others were still saved, although some villages remained inaccessible.
Ms. Merkel, who was visiting Washington on Thursday, expressed her condolences to the missing and thanked the thousands of helpers. She has promised the federal government to support the affected regions.
“Whatever is possible, we will do wherever we can,” she said, adding that Germany had received offers of help from its European partners.
Hundreds of firefighters worked all night to evacuate the stranded people. In Altena, North Rhine-Westphalia, two firefighters were killed while rescuing people, the police said.
“The water still flows knee-high through the streets, parked cars are thrown to the side, garbage and rubble pile up on the sides,” said Alexander Bange, the district spokesman for the Märkisches Land North Rhine-Westphalia news agency DPA
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“It’s really very depressing here,” he said.
Dozens of communities remained without electricity, while some villages were completely cut off, the police said. Telephone and cellular networks were also down, making it difficult for the authorities to track down the missing persons.
Belgium and the Netherlands also saw significant flooding when the weather system took hold in the region. According to the public broadcaster RTBF, at least two people were killed in the floods in the province of Liège in Belgium.
As the Meuse continued to reach dangerous proportions, the regional authorities asked the people of the city to evacuate and, if this was not possible, to take shelter on the upper floors of the buildings. All shops were closed and tourists were advised to leave.
The Belgian Defense Force said it was using helicopters and personnel to help with rescue and salvage work, while reports say the river is expected to rise several meters and endanger a dam.
In the Netherlands, according to the Dutch news agency NU.nl, soldiers were sent to the province of Limburg for evacuation, where at least one nursing home had to be evacuated.
Intense rain in Switzerland caused the country’s weather service to warn on Thursday that the floods would worsen in the coming days. On Lake Biel, Lake Thun and Lake Lucerne there is a high risk of flooding and the potential for landslides has been pointed out.
The chairman of Friends of the Earth Germany in North Rhine-Westphalia combined the severe flooding in the region with a failed policy of the state legislature. The effects of climate change are one of the issues that were hotly debated in Germany ahead of the September elections, in which the Greens are running for second place behind the conservative Christian Democrats led by Mr Laschet.
“The catastrophic consequences of the heavy rainfalls of the last few days are mostly homemade,” said Holger Sticht, who heads the regional chapter and made lawmakers and industry responsible for building in floodplains and forests. “We urgently need to change course.”
Megan Specia contributed to the coverage.