Hundreds Missing and at Least 69 Dead as Raging Floods Strike Western Europe

Strong rains caused rivers to burst their banks and wash away buildings in Belgium and Germany, where at least 1,300 remained missing. Homes and streets in the Netherlands and Switzerland also flooded.


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BERLIN — Following a day of frantic rescue efforts and orders to evacuate towns rapidly filling with water unloosed by violent storms, the German authorities said late Thursday that after confirming dozens of deaths, they were unable to account for at least 1,300 people.

That staggering figure was announced after swift-moving water from swollen rivers surged through cities and villages in two western German states, where 58 people were known to have died in the hardest-hit regions and other fatalities were expected.

With communication badly hampered, the authorities were hoping that the missing people were safe, if unreachable. But the storms and the floods have already proved deadly.

At least 11 more people were reported to have died in Belgium, according to authorities who also ordered inhabitants of downtown Liege to evacuate as the Meuse River, which flows through its center, overflowed its banks.

The storms and resulting high water also battered neighboring Switzerland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg as a slow-moving weather system threatened to dump even more rain on the inundated region overnight and into Friday.

The devastation caused by the severe weather came just days after the European Union announced an ambitious blueprint to pivot away from fossil fuels over the next nine years, as part of plans to make the 27-country bloc carbon-neutral by 2050. Environmental activists and politicians were quick to draw parallels between the flooding and the effects of climate change.


The Ahr river burst its banks, inundating Schuld.Credit…Michael Probst/Associated Press

But the immediate focus on Thursday remained the rescue efforts, with hundreds of firefighters, emergency responders and soldiers working to save people from the upper floors and rooftops of their homes, fill sandbags to stem the rising water and search for the missing.

One of the most heavily hit regions was Germany’s Ahrweiler district, where flash floods surged through the village of Schuld, washing away six houses and leaving several more on the verge of collapse. The police said 18 people had died in Ahrweiler district.

With so many people unaccounted for, the district authority said late Thursday that the number of dead was expected to climb. “Given the complexity of the level of damage, it is not possible at this time to make a final assessment of the situation,” it said in a statement.

“We have no exact numbers of dead, but can say that we have many people who have become victims of this flood,” Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the hardest-hit states in Germany, told reporters.

“Many people lost everything that they own after the mud flowed into their homes,” said Mr. Laschet, who is running to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor in national elections on Sept. 26.


Assessing the damage in Hagen.Credit…Ina Fassbender/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The flooding in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate was some of the worst in decades, after several days of steady rain dumped more water than could be absorbed by the ground and sewage systems.

The police urged people to upload images taken of the floods to help them in their search.


A partly flooded house in Erdorf, Germany.Credit…Harald Tittel/DPA, via Associated Press

The authorities in the district of Euskirchen, south of Dusseldorf, said that at least 15 people were known to have died in the flooding there. Many others were still being rescued, although some villages remained unreachable. Police in North Rhine-Westphalia reported at least seven other fatalities.

Ms. Merkel, who was visiting Washington Thursday, expressed her condolences to those who had lost loved ones and thanked the thousands of helpers. She pledged the support of the German government for the affected regions.

“Everything that can be done, wherever we can help, we will do that,” she said, adding that Germany had received offers of help from its European partners.

Hundreds of firefighters worked through the night to evacuate people who had been left stranded. Two firefighters died while trying to rescue people in Altena, in North Rhine-Westphalia, the police said.

“The water is still flowing knee-high through the streets, parked cars are thrown sideways, and trash and debris are piling up on the sides,” Alexander Bange, the district spokesman in the Markische region of North Rhine-Westphalia, told the German news agency D.P.A.

“It is really very depressing here,” he said.


A damaged road in Bad Munstereifel.Credit…Sascha Steinbach/EPA, via Shutterstock

Dozens of communities were left without power, while some villages were cut off entirely, the police said. Telephone and cellphone networks were also down, making it more difficult for the authorities to establish who was missing.

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Belgium and the Netherlands also experienced significant flooding as the weather system made its way across the region. In Belgium, the flooding was reported to have caused the deaths of at least two people in Liege Province, according to the country’s public broadcaster, RTBF.

As the Meuse continued to rise to dangerous levels, the regional authorities urged people in the city to evacuate, and if that was not possible, to shelter in the upper floors of buildings. All stores were ordered shut, and tourists were advised to leave.


In Verviers, Belgium.Credit…Francois Walschaerts/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Belgian Defense Force said it had deployed helicopters and personnel to assist with rescue and recovery efforts amid reports that the river was expected to rise several feet, threatening a dam.

In the Netherlands, soldiers were sent to help with evacuations in Limburg Province, where at least one nursing home had to be cleared, according to the Dutch news outlet

Intense rain in Switzerland led the country’s weather service to warn on Thursday that flooding would worsen in the coming days. It said there was a high risk of flooding on Lake Biel, Lake Thun and Lake Lucerne, and noted the potential for landslides.

The leader of Friends of the Earth Germany in North Rhine-Westphalia linked the severe flooding in the region to what he said were failed policies by lawmakers in charge of the state. The impact of climate change is one of the issues that has been fiercely debated in Germany before the September elections in which the Greens party is in the running for second place, behind Mr. Laschet’s conservative Christian Democrats.

“The catastrophic results of the heavy rain in the past few days are largely homemade,” said Holger Sticht, who heads the regional chapter and blamed lawmakers and industry for building in floodplains and woodlands. “We urgently need to change course.”


A campsite in Roermond, the Netherlands, on Thursday.Credit…Rob Engelaar/EPA, via Shutterstock

Megan Specia contributed reporting.

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