More than 60 people have died and dozens of people are missing in Germany and neighbouring Belgium after heavy flooding turned streams and streets into raging torrents, sweeping away cars and causing buildings to collapse.
Nineteen people died and dozens were missing around the wine-growing hub of Ahrweiler, in Rhineland-Palatinate state, police said, after the Ahr river that flows into the Rhine rose and brought down houses.
Six homes collapsed overnight in the village of Schuld, in a volcanic region of rolling hills and small valleys south west of Cologne, and dozens of people were reported missing. About 50 people were trapped on the roofs of their houses awaiting rescue.
Authorities in the western county of Euskirchen said eight deaths had been reported there. Rescue operations were hampered as phone and internet connections were down in part of the region, south west of Cologne.
A firefighter drowned on Wednesday during rescue work in the western town of Altena and another collapsed during rescue operations at a power plant in Werdohl-Elverlingsen. At least 30 people in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia were killed, several of them in flooded cellars.
Hundreds of soldiers were helping police with the rescue efforts, using tanks to clear roads of landslides and fallen trees, while helicopters winched those stranded on rooftops to safety.
Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her dismay, saying: “I am shocked by the catastrophe that so many people in the flood areas have to endure.
“My sympathy goes out to the families of the dead and missing. We still don’t know the number. But it will be many.”
The extent of the damage in Germany remained 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.
The heaviest rainfall ever measured over 24 hours caused flooding in cities including Cologne and Hagen, while in Leverkusen 400 people had to be evacuated from a hospital.
Authorities declared an emergency in the region after days of heavy rain that also affected large parts of western and central Germany, as well as neighbouring countries.
In Belgium, at least eight people have died including two men due to torrential rain and a 15-year-old girl was missing after being swept away by a swollen river.
In Germany, close to the border with the Czech Republic, one man was missing in the eastern town of Joehstadt after disappearing while trying to secure his property from rising waters, authorities said.
Rail connections were suspended in large parts of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany's most populous state.
The floods have caused Germany's worst mass loss of life in years. Flooding in 2002 killed 21 people in eastern Germany and over 100 across the wider central European region.
Merkel pledged everything would be done to find those still missing, adding: “‘Heavy rain and flooding’ doesn’t capture what happened.”
Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate to succeed her as chancellor at a general election in September and the premier of the hard-hit state of North Rhine Westphalia, blamed the extreme weather on global warming during a visit to the area.
"We will be faced with such events over and over, and that means we need to speed up climate protection measures, on European, federal and global levels, because climate change isn’t confined to one state," he said.
In Belgium, around 10 houses collapsed in Pepinster after the river Vesdre flooded the eastern town and residents were evacuated from more than 1,000 homes.
The rain also caused severe disruption to public transport, with high-speed Thalys train services to Germany cancelled. Traffic on the river Meuse is also suspended as the major Belgian waterway threatened to breach its banks.
Downstream in the Netherlands, flooding rivers damaged many houses in the southern province of Limburg, where several care homes were evacuated.
More heavy rain was due in southwestern Germany, on the upper reaches of the German Rhine, later on Thursday and Friday, the German Weather Service said.