German prosecutors are considering opening a formal investigation into possible failures by officials to properly warn the population about the devastating floods that occurred in the west of the country last month.
More than 180 people were killed in Germany and dozens remain missing after heavy rain caused flash floods in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia in July. The economic cost is expected to run into the billions of euros.
Prosecutors in the city of Koblenz — close to the Ahr valley where 138 people died — said in a statement Monday that the investigation concerns possible negligent homicide and negligent bodily harm as a result of late warnings or evacuation orders.
Residents of two flood-hit towns claimed they were only warned shortly before the floods hit, and that the information they received from authorities was vague.
Koblenz prosecutors said they were reviewing media reports and official police investigations into recorded deaths, including those of 12 residents at an assisted-living facility in the town of Sinzig, to determine whether there was sufficient evidence that crimes had been committed.
They plan to announce within the coming days whether they will launch a formal investigation, they said.
Anger toward German officials was palpable Monday during a visit by North Rhine-Westphalia Gov Armin Laschet to the village of Swisttal, where residents accused local and regional authorities of failing to sound sirens or issuing other warnings on the night of the floods.
“You’re going to see it in the elections,” one man shouted at Laschet, who is running to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor in Germany’s national election in September.
Heavy flooding hit Germany and Belgium in July, turning streams and streets into raging torrents, sweeping away cars and causing buildings to collapse.
Homes collapsed overnight in the village of Schuld, in a volcanic region of rolling hills and small valleys south west of Cologne.
Dozens of people were reported missing or trapped on the roofs of their houses awaiting rescue.
Rescue operations were hampered as phone and internet connections were down in part of the region, south west of Cologne.
A firefighter drowned during rescue work in the western town of Altena and another collapsed during rescue operations at a power plant in Werdohl-Elverlingsen.
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.”
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.
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, 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.