BERLIN (AP) – More than 30 people have died and dozens of people were missing Thursday in Germany and neighbouring Belgium after heavy flooding turned streams and streets into raging torrents, sweeping away cars and causing buildings to collapse.
Storms across parts of western Europe in recent days caused rivers and reservoirs to burst their banks, resulting in several flash floods overnight as rain-soaked soil failed to absorb any more water.
Authorities in the western German region of Euskirchen said eight deaths had been reported there in connection with the floods. Rescue operations were hampered by the fact that phone and internet connections were down in parts of the county, which is southwest of Cologne.
Officials said 18 people had died in Ahrweiler county, south of Euskirchen. Up to 70 people were reported missing after several houses collapsed overnight in the village of Schuld in the Eifel, a volcanic region of rolling hills and small valleys southwest of Cologne.
Dozens more were trapped on the roofs of their houses awaiting rescue. Authorities used inflatable boats and helicopters, and the German army deployed 200 soldiers to assist in the rescue operation.
“There are people dead, there are people missing, there are many who are still in danger,” the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state, Malu Dreyer, told the regional parliament. “We have never seen such a disaster. It’s really devastating.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was distraught by the news of the floods. “My sympathy goes to the relatives and of the dead and missing,” she said during a trip to Washington.
Across the border in Belgium, the Vesdre river broke its banks and sent masses of water churning through the streets of Pepinster, close to Liege, its destructive power bringing down some buildings.
“Several homes have collapsed,” mayor Philippe Godin told RTBF network. It was unclear whether all inhabitants had been able to escape unhurt.
Several Belgian media reported that four people died in eastern Verviers. No independent confirmation was immediately available.
Major highways were inundated in the south and east of Belgium, and the railway service said all traffic was stopped.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged to help those affected.
“My thoughts are with the families of the victims of the devastating floods in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands and those who have lost their homes,” she tweeted. “The EU is ready to help.”
The full extent of the damage across the region was still unclear after many villages were cut off by floodwater and landslides that made roads impassable. Videos posted on social media showed cars floating down streets and houses partly collapsed in some places.
Many of the dead were only discovered after floodwaters began to recede again. Police said four people died in separate incidents after their basements were flooded in Cologne, Kamen and Wuppertal, where authorities warned that a dam threatened to burst.
Authorities in the Rhine-Sieg county south of Cologne ordered the evacuation of several villages below the Steinbachtal reservoir amid fears the dam there could also break.
Two firefighters died during rescue operations in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.
Governor Armin Laschet paid tribute to them and pledged swift help for those individuals and businesses affected by the floods.
“We don’t know the extent of the damage yet, but we won’t leave the communities, the people affected alone,” he said during a visit the flood-hit city of Hagen.
Laschet, a conservative who is running to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor in this fall’s German election, said the unusually heavy storms and preceding heatwave could be linked to climate change.
Political opponents have criticized Laschet, the son of a miner, for supporting the region’s coal mining industry and hampering the expansion of wind power plants during his time in office.
German weather service DWD predicted the rainfall would ease Thursday, though there might still be localized storms and water levels on the Mosel and Rhine rivers would continue to rise in the coming hours.
Authorities in the southern Dutch town of Valkenburg, close to the German and Belgian borders, evacuated a care home and a hospice overnight amid flooding that turned the tourist town’s main street into a river, Dutch media reported.
The Dutch government sent some 70 troops to the southern province of Limburg late Wednesday to help with transporting evacuees and filling sandbags as rivers burst their banks.
A section of one of the Netherlands’ busiest highways was closed due to rising floodwaters threatening to inundate the road and Dutch media showed a group of holidaymakers being rescued from a hotel window with the help of an earth mover.
Unusually intense rains have also inundated a swath of northeast France this week, downing trees and forcing the closure of dozens of roads. A train route to Luxembourg was disrupted, and firefighters evacuated dozens of people from homes near the Luxembourg and German border and in the Marne region, according to local broadcaster France Bleu.
The equivalent of two months of rain has fallen on some areas in the last one or two days, according to the French national weather service. With the ground already saturated, the service forecast more downpours Thursday and issued flood warnings for 10 regions.
Meanwhile, high temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher were expected Thursday in parts of northern Europe.
The night between Wednesday and Thursday was the hottest in history, the Finnish weather service company Foreca said Thursday with the mercury reaching 24.2 Celsius degrees (75.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, tweeted that the extreme weather of recent days should not be regarded as “the new normal.”
“We’re at the very beginning of a climate and ecological emergency, and extreme weather events will only become more and more frequent,” she wrote.
Raf Casert in Brussels, Angela Charlton in Paris, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this report