(Bloomberg) — Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged swift help backed by “all the power of the state” for people affected by devastating flooding in western Germany, where at least 42 people have died and dozens are missing.
Following heavy rain Wednesday night into Thursday, floods also swamped parts of Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium, where at least four people have died.
Merkel interrupted her trip to Washington to make a somber statement, in which she called the floods in the regions of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate a “catastrophe” and a “tragedy” that she said was difficult to describe in words.
“I am shocked by the reports I am getting from areas that are completely under water,” added the chancellor, who will hold talks with U.S. President Joe Biden later on Thursday.
“There are many who we must still be worried for and everything will be done to find those who are missing,” Merkel said. The federal government will discuss how it can help with reconstruction once the task of saving lives has been completed.
The floods are among the most devastating in the region in decades. Residents climbed onto rooftops and into trees after houses were inundated or collapsed. Thousands of homes were without electricity.
Heavy rains are expected to continue over the next few days, with the storm moving south toward southern Germany and Switzerland on Friday. Extreme weather events such as floods, drought and heatwaves are expected to increase as the planet warms, scientists warn.
The amount of rain that usually falls over the space of two months fell in just twelve hours in some parts of eastern Germany and northwestern France, said Frederic Nathan, a forecaster with Meteo-France. The land was already wet and water levels in rivers and lakes high due to precipitation in previous days, which contributed to the flooding, Nathan said.
“It’s an incredible amount of precipitation in a very small amount of time,” he said. “It fell in places that were already totally saturated, so that increases the risk of overflowing.”
Parts of Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland are on flood alerts as lakes and rivers burst their banks following torrential rains over the past two days.
In Liege, one of Belgium’s largest cities, people were asked to evacuate homes in the city center as the Meuse River is expected to rise further. The floods halted parts of the country’s train network and flooded road tunnels in Brussels.
The European Union sent a flood rescue team and helicopter from France to assist in rescue efforts around Liege.“The EU is ready to help,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter. “Affected countries can call on the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.”
In Germany, Armin Laschet, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the conservative candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor after September’s election, echoed Merkel’s promise of aid during a visit to Hagen, one of the worst-affected places.
Water began sweeping through the center of the city Wednesday night, inflicting serious damage on houses, roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Germany’s Bundeswehr armed forces dispatched about 200 soldiers and armored vehicles to help evacuate residents. The DWD weather service said more rainfall may hit the region Thursday night.
“The effects of this catastrophe will surely be felt for weeks,” said Juergen Pfoehler, administrator for the Ahrweiler district in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Joerg Asmussen, managing director of the GDV insurers’ association, said the prevalence of storms, floods, heavy rain and hail in Germany this year could make it one of the most damaging since 2013.
Heavy rain and hail in June caused an estimated insurance loss of 1.7 billion euros ($2 billion), he said by email.
It takes time and scientific analysis to determine whether a specific meteorological event is linked to climate change. Though the intense precipitation seen in west Germany in July does have precedence, it’s not common, Nathan said.
“Global warming tends to bring more extreme precipitations,” he said. “We have seen five or six cold spells since the beginning of June, which is something quite rare for this time of the year that we have certainly not seen in recent times.”