BERLIN (AP) — Rescue workers labored to clear up damage laid bare by receding water Saturday as the death toll from disastrous flooding in Western Europe rose above 160 and thoughts turned to the lengthy job of rebuilding communities devastated in minutes.
Police said that more than 98 people are now known to have died in western Germany’s Ahrweiler county, one of the worst-hit areas, and more casualties are feared. Another 43 people were confirmed dead in neighboring North Rhine-Westphalia state. Belgium’s national crisis center put the country’s confirmed death toll at 24 and said it expects the number to rise.
Days of heavy rain turned streets into raging rivers this week and caused the disastrous flooding that swept away cars, destroyed homes and trapped residents. By Saturday, floodwaters were receding across much of the affected regions, revealing the extent of the damage.
“A lot of people have lost everything they spent their lives building up — their possessions, their home, the roof over their heads,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after meeting rescue workers and others in the town of Erftstadt.
“It may only be possible to clear up in weeks how much damage needs to be compensated,” he said.
Steinmeier said that people in the affected areas are counting on continuing support.
“Many people here in these regions have nothing left but their hope, and we must not disappoint this hope,” he said.
In Erftstadt, a town southwest of Cologne, a harrowing rescue effort unfolded on Friday when the ground in a neighborhood gave way, At least three houses and part of a mansion in the town’s Blessem district collapsed.
The German military used armored vehicles to clear away cars and trucks overwhelmed by the floodwaters on a nearby road, some of which remained at least partly submerged. Officials feared that some people didn’t manage to escape in Erftstadt, but no casualties were confirmed by Saturday afternoon.
In the Ahrweiler area, police warned of a potential risk from downed power lines and urged curious visitors to stay away. They complained on Twitter that would-be sightseers were blocking some roads.
Many areas were still without electricity and telephone service — something that, along with multiple counting, appeared to have accounted in part for large numbers of missing people that authorities gave immediately after the floods hit on Wednesday and Thursday.
Around 700 people were evacuated from part of the German town of Wassenberg, on the Dutch border, after the breach of a dike on the Rur river.
Visiting Erftstadt with Steinmeier, North Rhine-Westphalia governor Armin Laschet promised to organize aid for those immediately affected “in the coming days.” He said regional and federal authorities would discuss in the coming days how to help rebuilding efforts. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet plans to discuss the issue on Wednesday.
“We will do everything so that what needs to be rebuilt can be rebuilt,” Laschet said.
Across the border in eastern Belgium, train lines and roads remained blocked in many areas. A cafe owner in the devastated town of Pepinster broke down in tears when King Philippe and Queen Mathilde visited Friday to offer comfort to residents.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo were visiting flood-damaged towns Saturday, according to Belgian state broadcaster RTBF.
Southern parts of the Netherlands also have been hit by heavy flooding.
Volunteers worked through the night to shore up dikes and protect roads. Thousands of residents were allowed to return home Saturday morning after being evacuated on Thursday and Friday.
Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who visited the region on Friday, said that “first, there was corona, now these floods, and soon people will have to work on cleanup and recovery.”
“It is disaster after disaster after disaster. But we will not abandon Limburg,” the southern province hit by the floods, he added. His government has declared the flooding a state of emergency, opening up national funds for those affected.
Among other efforts to help the flood victims, brewery Hertog Jan, which is based in the affected area, handed out 3,000 beer crates to locals to help them raise their belongings off the ground to protect them from the flooding.
In Switzerland, heavy rain has caused several rivers and lakes to burst their banks, with authorities in the city of Lucerne closing several pedestrian bridges over the Reuss river.