The death toll from catastrophic floods in western Germany and Belgium has risen to more than 100, local authorities have said, as emergency services continued their search for hundreds still missing.
“I fear that we will only see the full extent of the disaster in the coming days,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said from Washington late on Thursday, calling it a day “characterised by fear, by despair, by suffering”.
Authorities in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate said 50 people had died there, including at least nine residents of an assisted living facility for people with disabilities, while neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia put the death toll at 43.
Officials warned the figures could rise further. About 1,300 people in the devastated Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate remain unaccounted for, although efforts to contact them were being hindered by badly damaged phone networks.
The regional interior minister, Roger Lewentz, told broadcaster SWR that “40, 50 or 60 people could be missing. When you haven’t heard for people for such a long time … you have to fear the worst. The number of victims will likely keep rising.”
Belgian authorities said the country’s death toll had risen to 12, with five still missing. Most of the dead were found around Liège, a city of 200,000 people, despite an order for residents of central districts and areas bordering the Meuse river to evacuate.
The army has been sent to four of the country’s 10 provinces to help with rescue operations and evacuations, with residents of some towns, including the resort of Spa, which has been under water since late on Wednesday, accommodated in tents.
While they have so far suffered no loss of life, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were also severely affected, with flash floods sweeping through the Swiss villages Schleitheim and Beggingen, several towns in the Grand Duchy evacuated on Thursday, and thousands told to leave their homes in the southern Dutch city of Maastricht.
The water level in the Maas, as the Meuse River is known in Dutch, reached its maximum forecast height in Maastricht on Thursday night but stayed below what authorities had termed the “doom scenario”, averting widespread flooding.
Bridges across the river remained closed, however, and as residents began returning to their homes on Friday morning, others in towns and villages further downstream were being told to leave. At least 550 households were evacuated in Roermond.
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Màxima visited the Limburg town of Valkenburg, which saw some of Thursday’s worst flooding, and caretaker prime minister, Mark Rutte, formally declared a disaster, freeing up state funds to pay for the damage.
By far the highest death toll was in Germany, where rescuers on Friday were focusing their efforts on helping people trapped in their homes in the town of Erftstadt, south-west of Cologne, where numerous houses were at risk of collapse after floodwaters weakened and exposed their foundations
More rain is forecast for parts of the region, where water levels in the Rhine and its tributaries are rising dangerously. More than 1,000 soldiers have been deployed to help with rescue operations and rubble-clearing in affected towns and villages.
At least 20 people had been confirmed dead in Euskirchen, one of the worst-hit towns. Reporters on the scene described a normally well-ordered centre transformed into a mountain of rubble and house fronts ripped off by the floods.
Thousands of people remain homeless after their houses were destroyed or deemed at-risk by authorities, including several villages around the Steinbach reservoir that experts say could collapse under the weight of the floods.
“My empathy and my heart go 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,” Merkel told reporters in Washington, where she was visiting Joe Biden.
She said her government would not leave those affected “alone with their suffering,” adding that it was doing its “utmost to help them in their distress”.
Experts said the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) issued an “extreme” flood warning earlier this week and questioned why the toll was so high. Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist, told Politico the disaster was “a monumental failure of the system”.
The German weather service DWD said it had passed on the warning to local authorities, who should have been responsible for organising any necessary evacuations. The interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said Germany “must prepare much better” in future, adding that “this is a consequence of climate change”. Guardian