Live Updates: Death Toll Climbs as Floodwaters Ebb in Europe

At least 143 are reported dead in Germany, and 27 in Belgium. Hundreds are still unaccounted for in Germany after days of rain and flooding made worse by climate change.,

LiveUpdated July 17, 2021, 1:23 p.m. ETJuly 17, 2021, 1:23 p.m. ET

At least 143 are reported dead in Germany, and 27 in Belgium. Hundreds are still unaccounted for in Germany after days of rain and flooding made worse by climate change.

Video

transcript

bars

0:00/2:22

-0:00

transcript

Satellite Images Reveal Impact of European Floods

Towns in multiple countries have been devastated. We used radar technology to look through the clouds at the damage below.

“Oh my god!” The flooding in Western Europe is a catastrophe of historic proportions. Satellite images are often one of the best ways to grasp the scale of natural disasters, but when we tried looking at it from above, all these images showed were clouds, clouds and more clouds. So we tapped a Finland-based company called ICEYE. Their radar-imaging technology can see through clouds to capture, in real time, the magnitude and nature of the flooding on the ground. This is Erftstadt in Germany, one of the towns most heavily affected by the flooding. This radar image shows the floodwater as black masses here. One key detail is a field on the edge of this neighborhood. On July 15, it is flooded. Next to it is a quarry. A second image taken 24 hours later reveals that the walls of the quarry have collapsed. The resulting landslide has swallowed houses, cars and roads. Across the border in the Netherlands, this image shows the city of Maastricht. There is flooding near the town center and north of the city, close to the airport. A drone captured the scene on the ground. Here are government buildings. This used to be a harbor, and this an RV park. With some European villages still cut off by the flooding, radar technology could help gauge the water’s impact in remote areas and guide rescue efforts. Hundreds are still missing and death tolls are expected to continue to rise as emergency workers make their way through the wreckage.

Video player loading
Towns in multiple countries have been devastated. We used radar technology to look through the clouds at the damage below.CreditCredit…Photo by Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As waters receded on Saturday, Germans in the country’s west surveyed scenes of destruction, grieved over a rising death toll and confronted questions about how the country’s flood control systems had been so quickly overwhelmed by one of the most extreme rainfalls on record.

The death toll in Germany climbed to at least 143 on Saturday, while the toll across the border in Belgium stood at 27, its national crisis center said. The count rose most sharply in Germany’s Ahrweiler district in Rhineland-Palatinate State, where the police said that more than 90 people had died and the authorities feared that the number could yet grow.

The authorities in Germany said that 600 people had been injured. Hundreds have been reported as missing, but officials have struggled to offer precise estimates: Electricity and telephone services remain inaccessible in parts of Germany, and some roads are still impassable. In Belgium, police officers knocked on doors in an effort to confirm the whereabouts of vulnerable residents.

Still, with floodwaters receding across parts of the region, the scale of the damage seemed certain to become clearer. Firefighters and soldiers began the daunting task of clearing debris, unclogging roads and assessing damaged buildings.

Officials said they expected to find additional victims.

Extreme downpours like the ones that hit Germany are one of the most visible signs that the climate is changing as a result of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have shown a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, generating more rainfall.

Floods of this size have not been seen in 500 or even 1,000 years, according to meteorologists and German officials.

Rhineland-Palatinate was one of the two hardest-hit German states in the west, along with North Rhine-Westphalia. The Rhine River flows through the two regions, and the rain fell so rapidly that it engorged even small streams and tributaries not typically considered flood threats.

Hamburg

GERMANY

North Rhine-

Westphalia

Wuppertal

Roermond

Altena

Dusseldorf

Verviers

Schuld

Detail area

Rhineland-

Palatinate

Berlin

GERMANY

FRANCE

Munich

100 miles

Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, traveled on Saturday to the town of Erftstadt, southwest of Cologne, where the flooding destroyed homes. Chancellor Angela Merkel planned to travel on Sunday to Schuld (not Stuhr as an earlier version of this item said) in Rhineland-Palatinate, which was badly hit, even as all of its 700 residents managed to survive.

Days before roiling waters tore through western Germany, a European weather agency had issued an extreme flood warning, as models showed that storms would send rivers surging to levels that had not been seen in hundreds of years.

The warnings, however, did little good.

Though Germany’s flood warning system, a network of sensors that measure river levels, functioned as it was supposed to, state and local officials said the amount of rain was unlike anything they had ever seen, causing even small streams and rivers to flood their banks.

Survivors and officials said many areas were caught unprepared as normally placid brooks and streams turned into torrents that swept away cars, houses and bridges. About 15,000 police officers, soldiers and emergency service workers have been deployed in Germany to help with the search and rescue.

Dr. Linda Speight, a hydrometeorologist at the University of Reading in Britain who studies how flooding occurs, blamed poor communication about the high risk posed by the flooding as contributing to the significant loss of life. “There should not have been so many deaths from this event,” she said.

There were scenes of devastation from all around Western Europe, the floods having caused damage from Switzerland to the Netherlands.

On Saturday in Belgium, the country’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, and the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, visited towns ravaged by the waters.

But the worst devastation was in Germany. And despite being in the middle of an election campaign, German politicians initially made a point of avoiding statements that could be seen as politicizing a calamity.

Still, the natural disaster has the potential to reshape the elections scheduled for Sept. 26. Armin Laschet, the conservative leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, who is vying to succeed Ms. Merkel, called the floods a “catastrophe of historic scale” and vowed, “We have to make the state more climate-proof.”

The Lebenshilfe Haus, where 12 people died.
The Lebenshilfe Haus, where 12 people died.Credit…Thomas Frey/DPA, via Associated Press

They were disabled residents of a care home, the Lebenshilfe Haus, asleep when the waters of the flash flood suddenly rose early Thursday morning. Trapped on the first floor, they drowned before aid could arrive.

As calamitous floods hit Germany, the deaths of 12 people at a care home in Sinzig, a small town between the Rhine and Ahr rivers, have broken hearts all over the country and demonstrated how tragedy could have been avoided had flood warnings been better heeded.

“Every person who dies is a tragedy,” said Tabera Irrle, 23, a train driver who came to Sinzig to help with the cleanup. “But this is a special sadness.”

Neighbors could hear screaming, they said later, but all that emergency workers could do was save the other 24 residents on higher floors some three hours later, bringing them out the windows in small boats. The disabled residents had been under the care of single watchman.

Dominik Gasper, 17, was helping his parents and uncle clean out the mud and ruined belongings of his grandparents’ house near the care home. He knew about the 12 dead, he said.

“It was so horrible,” he said. “You can’t really understand such a thing.”

The waters crested in Sinzig at more than 7 meters, about 23 feet, the highest in a century, said Andreas Geron, the mayor. He said emergency workers in fire trucks had tried to warn residents late Wednesday night, but few said they had heard an alarm.

Two other Sinzig residents died in this town of 20,000, and a newly renovated bridge over the Ahr collapsed.

Luis Rufino, 50, a lifelong resident of Sinzig, was angry about what happened. He said some of it could have been prevented.

“Our health system is better than in the U.S., but they are still trying to avoid costs,” he said. “So there was only one guy watching over these poor people, and when the lights went out, they went into a panic, and when the flood came through, they had no chance.”

Ulrich van Bebber, the chairman of Lebenshilfe, which has operated the care home since it was built 27 years ago, told journalists that “we are all horrified, stunned and infinitely sad.”

He said those who survived were being cared for. “We want to keep the Lebenshilfe Haus as a residential facility and, if necessary, rebuild it.”

A flooded street on Saturday in Ophoven, a district of Wassenberg in Germany.
A flooded street on Saturday in Ophoven, a district of Wassenberg in Germany.Credit…Thomas Banneyer/picture alliance, via Getty Images

Even as some Germans managed to return to their homes on Saturday amid the receding floodwaters, the danger for others had not yet passed.

In Wassenberg, a town in western Germany near the Dutch border, officials had ordered roughly 700 people to evacuate their homes on Friday night after a nearby dam broke, town officials said on Saturday.

The extent of any damage was not immediately clear.

The evacuations were precipitated by the breach of a dam on the Roer river, a tributary of the Rhine, which passes through the western regions hardest hit by the flooding.

In other towns nearby, residents were gradually making their way back home and for the first time since floodwaters rushed in earlier this week, reckoning with what had been ruined: books, heirlooms and century-old family businesses.

Volunteers joined the firefighters and soldiers picking through damaged buildings, rolling wheelbarrows full of dirt and debris from people’s cellars.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on a visit to Washington this week.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on a visit to Washington this week.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Usually a national leader faced with floods as severe as those in Germany would be expected to break off whatever she was doing and rush to the crisis area.

But Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany completed an official visit to Washington that ended Friday, and she was not expected to visit the flood zone until Sunday, long after most other German political leaders had come and gone. (Saturday was also her 67th birthday.)

Ms. Merkel did express her sympathy to the victims from Washington, saying during an appearance with President Biden on Thursday, “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.”

And hours after touching down in Germany on Friday morning, Ms. Merkel took part in a crisis meeting with leaders of the state of Rhineland Palatinate, where many of the hardest-hit communities are. She also spoke by telephone with Armin Laschet, the leader of North Rhine Westphalia, which also suffered major devastation and loss of life.

Mr. Laschet — who, like Ms. Merkel, is a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party — is the party’s candidate to succeed her after the country holds elections in September.

So far Ms. Merkel has not faced major criticism for taking several days to see the damage for herself. She has never been one for political theater, and does not need to worry about opinion polls because she is stepping down from politics after the elections.

Germans also seemed to understand the importance of her trip to Washington — probably her last as chancellor — and meetings with Mr. Biden.

Germany is anxious to repair its relationship with the United States, a crucial ally and trading partner, after four tense years of dealing with President Donald J. Trump, who treated Germany like a rival and threatened to impose punitive tariffs on German cars. At a news conference with Mr. Biden on Thursday, Ms. Merkel seemed almost buoyant to be dealing with a new administration.

“We’re not only partners and allies, but we’re very close friends,” she said of Mr. Biden.

Addressing an underlying cause of Western Europe’s worst floods in centuries, the two leaders signed a pact to take “urgent action to address the climate crisis.”

“There is a dramatic increase in such unusual weather phenomena, and we have to contend with this,” Ms. Merkel said while standing alongside Mr. Biden.

Huge cleanup efforts were underway after days of flooding inundated parts of Western Europe this week.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, left, and Armin Laschet, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, speaking with rescue workers in Erftstadt.
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, left, and Armin Laschet, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, speaking with rescue workers in Erftstadt.Credit…Marius Becker/EPA, via Shutterstock

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany on Saturday visited the city of Erftstadt, where floods had ripped away homes, triggering a landslide that wrought further destruction.

An entire stretch of highway remained submerged there on Saturday as fears mounted that people who had tried to flee this week’s torrential rains could have been trapped in their cars by flash flooding — and may still be found when the waters recede.

Already, at least 43 people are known to have died.

Mr. Steinmeier, who is seeking a second term in office after his current one ends in February, urged Germans to help in any way they could.

“Many people in this region have nothing left but hope,” Mr. Steinmeier said. “And we cannot disappoint these hopes.”

A president’s role in Germany is largely ceremonial, but in times of national tragedy or crisis, the head of state often helps set the tone and serve as a representative of the people.

Mr. Steinmeier was joined by Armin Laschet, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, home to Erftstadt, and the leading candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel when Germans vote for a new government on Sept. 26.

Ms. Merkel planned to travel on Sunday to the town of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate.

Part of the historic center of Prague was underwater in August 2002.
Part of the historic center of Prague was underwater in August 2002.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The floods devastating Europe have killed scores of people, leaving at least 1,300 missing, uprooting families, causing massive financial damage and reducing homes and cars to the state of floating bath toys. But it is not the first time the continent has been buffeted by a deluge.

Here are some of the other major lethal floods and flooding caused by storms in recent years.

A house damaged by flooding in Krupanj, Serbia, in 2014.Credit…Dragan Karadarevic/European Pressphoto Agency

A 7-year-old boy dead after falling ill in a flooded home in Surrey. A kayaker drowned on a swollen Welsh river. A coastal railroad ripped up by waves in Cornwall.

In a matter of months in 2014, at least 5,000 houses in Britain were damaged in what was then seen as one of the rainiest seasons in nearly 250 years. While some blamed the flooding on the austerity measures of David Cameron, the prime minister at the time, others pointed to climate change.

In May of that same year, the heaviest rains and floods in 120 years hit Bosnia and Serbia, killing at least 33 people, forcing thousands out of their homes, and cutting off power in 100,000 households in Serbia, as several months’ worth of rainfall fell in a matter of days.

A house near Deggendorf, Germany, surrounded by floodwaters in June 2013.Credit…Armin Weigel/European Pressphoto Agency

Germany is no stranger to flooding.

In Bitterfeld, in eastern Germany, about 10,000 people were asked to leave their homes in June 2013 after a levee on the Mulde River burst, amid some of the worst flooding that some German regions had seen in centuries. More than 600 residents of Dresden were brought to safety as electricity and water services to the city’s affected center were cut off.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, now tested by the current flooding, showed her mettle at the time, touring three of the hardest-hit areas to wade through ankle-deep floodwaters and visit victims of the flood.

Storm-driven waves batter the port of Wimereux in northern France in 2007.Credit…Philippe Huguen/Agence France-Presse

The storm was called Kyrill by German meteorologists, and it spurred unrelenting rain in Britain, Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The howling gale churned through the British Isles and Northern Europe, uprooting trees, shattering windows, flooding beaches and forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights at airports from London to Frankfurt.

According to the European Environment Agency, Kyrill killed 46 people and resulted in overall losses worth 8 billion euros. At the time, it was one of the most damaging extreme weather episodes ever recorded in Europe.

The name Kyrill stemmed from a German practice of naming weather systems. Anyone may name one, for a fee, and three siblings had paid to name the system as a 65th birthday gift for their father, not realizing it would grow into a fierce storm.

A woman emptying a bucket into the flooded Aare River in Thun, Switzerland, in 2005.Credit…Peter Schneider/Keystone, via Associated Press

Such was the deluge in Central and Southern Europe in 2005 that in the Alps, military helicopters were deployed to ferry in supplies, evacuate stranded tourists and even stranded cows in mountain pastures threatened by rising water.

The floods left dozens dead. In Romania, which was badly affected by the flooding, victims were drowned as torrents of water rushed into their homes. Austria, Bulgaria, Germany and Switzerland were also buffeted by the flooding.

The scenes of devastation were visceral and shocking. The Aare River broke through the windows of a children’s clothes shop in Bern, leaving baby strollers and toys floating in muddy water. Much of the historic old city of Lucerne remained underwater.

Meanwhile, in southern Poland, rivers broke their banks and at least seven bridges collapsed.

Rescue workers in rafts searched for residents stranded by flooding in Prague in 2002.Credit…Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In 2002, some of the worst rains since 1890 pelted the Czech Republic, putting part of the historic center of Prague underwater and resulting in 50,000 residents being ordered to evacuate, as rivers swelled by near constant rain.

The death toll from the floods, which ravaged East and Central Europe, including Germany and Austria, and southern Russia, was more than 110. The flooding caused billions of dollars worth of damage.

The floods helped propel Germany’s chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, to re-election because of his management of the crisis.

In Austria, the Salzach River burst its banks south of Salzburg and threatened to inundate the city at the height of its famous summer festival, forcing the authorities to close most bridges and major roads.

Floodwaters rose in Hungary and Germany, and in northern Austria the authorities halted river traffic on parts of the Danube.

The Ahr river overran its banks in the village of Insul, Germany.
The Ahr river overran its banks in the village of Insul, Germany.Credit…Michael Probst/Associated Press

Was the flooding caused by climate change?

Tying a single weather event to climate change requires extensive attribution analysis, and that takes time, but scientists know one thing for sure: Warmer air holds more moisture, and that makes it more likely that any given storm will produce more precipitation.

For every 1 Celsius degree of warming, air can hold 7 percent more moisture.

On average, the world has warmed by a little more than 1 degree Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 19th century, when societies began pumping huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“Any storm that comes along now has more moisture to work with,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts. “That’s the straightforward connection to the increased frequency of heavy downpours.”

And although it is still a subject of debate, some scientists say climate change might be causing storms to linger longer.

Some studies suggest that rapid warming in the Arctic is affecting the jet stream. One consequence of that, said Hayley Fowler, a professor of climate change impacts at Newcastle University in England, is that the river of wind is weakening and slowing down at certain times during the year, including summer. That, in turn, affects weather systems farther south.

“That means the storms have to move more slowly,” Dr. Fowler said. The storm that caused the flooding was practically stationary, she noted.

The combination of more moisture and a stalled storm system means that a lot of rain can fall over a given area.

Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, one of the primary scientists with World Weather Attribution, a group that quickly analyzes extreme weather events to see whether they were made more likely by climate change, said the group was discussing whether to study the German floods.

Beyond the speed of a weather system and its moisture content, there are many factors that affect flooding that can make an analysis difficult. Local topography has to be taken into account, as that can affect how much runoff gets into which rivers.

Human impacts can complicate the analysis even further. Development near rivers can make runoff worse by reducing the amount of open land that can absorb rain. And infrastructure built to cope with heavy runoff and rising rivers may be under-designed and inadequate.

Watching the high water in Roermond, the Netherlands, on Friday.
Watching the high water in Roermond, the Netherlands, on Friday.Credit…Vincent Jannink/EPA, via Shutterstock

While some development in cities and elsewhere can make flooding worse, other projects can reduce flooding. That appears to have been the case in the Netherlands, which was not as severely affected as neighboring Germany by this week’s storm.

After several major floods on the Meuse River in the 1990s, the Dutch government began a program called Room for the River to reduce flooding, said Nathalie Asselman, who advises the government and other clients on flood risk.

The work involved lowering and widening river beds, lowering flood plains and excavating side channels.

“The aim of these measures is to lower flood levels,” she said.

Taming water in the Netherlands, a waterlogged country, has been a matter of survival for centuries, and the imperative to keep levels under control is inextricably bound up with Dutch identity. Much of the country sits below sea level and is gradually sinking. Climate change has also exacerbated the twin threats of storms and rising tides.

While a dike near the Meuse in southern Netherlands suffered a breach that caused some flooding until it was repaired on Friday, the measures appear to have worked.

The breach, in the dike along the Juliana Canal in the southern Netherlands, was closed by the Dutch military by dumping hundreds of sandbags into the growing hole. Hours before, thousands had been told to evacuate after the dike was breached along the canal, a 22-mile waterway that regulates the Meuse River.

The river’s water level is at heights not witnessed since 1911, the Dutch national broadcaster NOS reported. Yet water levels on the Meuse were about a foot lower than would have been the case without the flood-reduction measures, Ms. Asselman said. That meant that smaller tributaries backed up less where they met the Meuse, producing less flooding.

“If we wouldn’t have implemented these measures, then the situation would have been worse,” she said. “Both on the main river and the tributaries.”

Oliver Henry, a firefighter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after helping extinguish a small fire in Mattawa, Wash., last month.
Oliver Henry, a firefighter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after helping extinguish a small fire in Mattawa, Wash., last month.Credit…Grant Hindsley for The New York Times

An increasingly hot, dry and deadly summer has gripped much of the Western United States, with heat claiming lives in the Pacific Northwest and Canada in record numbers, and a deepening drought threatening water supplies — all of which is setting the stage for another potentially catastrophic fire season in California and neighboring states.

A fourth major heat wave was forecast to roast parts of the region again this weekend. It comes two weeks after a record-shattering spate of high temperatures — which scientists said would been virtually impossible without climate change — killed hundreds of people in the United States and Canada.

A week ago, Death Valley hit a 130-degree high, matching a reading from last year that may be the highest reliably recorded temperature on earth. Also this past weekend, Las Vegas tied its record high, 117 degrees, and Grand Junction, Colo., topped its previous record, hitting 107 degrees.

At least 67 weather stations from Washington State through New Mexico have recorded their hottest temperatures ever this summer, the National Weather Service said this week. Those records stretched back at least 75 years.

The heat helped drive the rapid growth of a wildfire in southern Oregon, known as the Bootleg Fire, that has burned more than 240,000 acres — about a third the size of Rhode Island, America’s smallest state. The fire, the largest of dozens across the West, has destroyed about two dozen homes, threatens 1,900 more and has set off a wave of evacuations.

The fire also burned across a power line corridor that serves as a major contributor to the electrical grid in California, where officials have issued warnings this week asking residents to conserve power by turning up their thermostats and turning off appliances, or risk rolling blackouts.

One part of the West saw some relief from the crushing heat this week, as monsoon rains fell on the Southwest, including New Mexico and Arizona. But the result was yet another disaster: flash flooding that left some city streets in Arizona awash in muddy water and propelled a torrent of water through part of the Grand Canyon, washing away a camp where about 30 people on a rafting trip were spending the night, killing one.

As the Earth warms from climate change, heat waves are becoming hotter and more frequent. “And as bad as it might seem today,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, recently told The New York Times, “this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”

Leave a Reply