In Germany alone, more than 90 people have died in what is the country’s worst mass loss of life in years. That number was feared to rise further as more houses collapsed, while in Belgium media said the death toll was at least 14.
More than 1,000 people were unaccounted for and more houses were destroyed in flood-stricken regions in western Germany and Belgium. Entire communities lay in ruins after swollen rivers swept through towns and villages in the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate and Belgium.
In the southern Netherlands, it was reported Friday evening that thousands of people had fled their homes as rising waters broke through a dyke and swamped cities.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared a national disaster in the southern province of Limburg, which is sandwiched between badly flooded areas in western Germany and Belgium.
“There is a large hole in the dyke ... Immediately leave your home and get to safety,” emergency services in Meerssen said in an online alert. Families were told to turn off their electricity and gas supplies.
It is the worst mass loss of life Germany has suffered in years, and the numbers are expected to climb further still. Authorities in Ahrweiler, a district in the north of Rhineland-Palatinate, south of Cologne, said that as many as 1,300 people remain missing, while collapsed mobile phone networks in the flooded regions make it near impossible for loved ones to find each other in the chaos.
The extreme weather has also left at least 11 dead in neighbouring Belgium, according to media reports.
Entire communities lie in ruins after rivers burst their banks and obliterated towns and villages following days of torrential downpour. On Friday morning, rescue crews in Erftstadt, near Cologne, were struggling to reach stranded people who had returned to their houses despite warnings.
Speaking at the White House during a visit to Washington, chancellor Angela Merkel said it was it a day “characterised by fear, by despair, by suffering, and hundreds of thousands of people all of a sudden were faced with catastrophe”.
“My empathy and my heart goes out to all of those who in this catastrophe lost their loved ones, or who are still worrying about the fate of people still missing,” she said, adding that many in Luxembourg and the Netherlands were also badly affected by the extreme weather.
Ms Merkel said the German government was doing its “utmost to help [people] in their distress”.
US president Joe Biden offered his “sincere condolences” for the tragedy.
The catastrophic event has been directly attributed to the climate crisis, with German interior minister Horst Seehofer saying the country “must prepare much better” in future and that “this extreme weather is a consequence of climate change”.
Germany has experienced a volatile pattern of high temperatures and dry weather followed by episodes of heavy rainfall in recent weeks. Scientists have said the extreme weather is being exacerbated by the climate crisis, with Friederike Otto from the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford telling Deutsche Welle that the “intensity” of the weather is “being strengthened by climate change — and will continue to strengthen further with more warming”.
Malu Dreyer, the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state, told the regional parliament: “There are people dead, there are people missing, there are many who are still in danger … We have never seen such a disaster. It’s really devastating.” Meanwhile, the North Rhine-Westphalia parliament is due to hold an emergency meeting on Friday.
Water levels in the Rhine river could keep rising dangerously as the rain is expected to continue, leading to fears that a dam could break. Authorities in the Rhine-Sieg county in North Rhine-Westphalia have ordered the evacuation of several villages below the Steinbach reservoir in response.
Mr Seehofer said that the federal government aimed to provide financial support for the affected regions as soon as possibl