Heavy rains and floods lashing western Europe have killed at least 19 people in Germany and left around 50 missing, as rising waters led several houses to collapse on Thursday.
Unusually heavy rains also ravaged neighbouring Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium, where another two people were reported dead.
Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) states were the worst hit by the unusually heavy rainfall, which has caused rivers to burst their banks and threatens to bring down more homes.
“We have never seen such a catastrophe, it is truly devastating,” Rhineland-Palatinate premier Malu Dreyer told state lawmakers.
NRW leader Armin Laschet, who is running to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel in September elections, cancelled a party meeting in Bavaria to visit the scene in his state, Germany’s most populous.
“The situation is alarming,” Laschet told the daily Bild.
Four of the dead in Germany were in the municipality of Schuld south of Bonn where six houses were swept away by floods, a police spokesman in the city of Koblenz told AFP.
Several of the dead were recovered from flooded cellars while another eight people were reported dead in the district of Euskirchen.
In NRW alone, 135,000 households were without power.
Emergency workers struggled to evacuate people in endangered buildings and two firemen were killed in the line of duty in the towns of Altena and Werdohl.
– Rising rivers –
Police set up a crisis hotline for people to report missing loved ones and residents were asked to send in videos and photos that could help them in the search.
Rescue workers were deployed in helicopters to pluck people off streets and rooftops.
Regional official Juergen Pfoehler called on people to stay home “and, if possible, go to higher floors” of their houses.
The German military said it would deploy 300 soldiers across the two affected states to assist in rescue efforts.
Farther north in the city of Leverkusen, a power outage triggered by the storms led to the evacuation of a hospital with 468 patients.
City authorities reported that after intensive care patients were moved to other facilities overnight, the other wards would have to be cleared in the course of the day.
The environment ministry in Rhineland-Palatinate warned it expected floodwaters on the Rhine and Moselle rivers to rise with more rainfall.
– ‘Rarely experienced’ –
Neighbouring Belgium has also seen several days of heavy rain that has caused rivers in the French-speaking region of Wallonia to burst their banks. Two were reported dead.
The provinces of Liege and Namur were especially affected, with the resort town of Spa completely flooded. In the town of Chaudfontaine, daily Le Soir reported that nearly 1,800 people had to evacuate.
“We have rarely experienced such intense flooding. You have to go back to 1998 to have experienced this,” Chaudefontaine mayor Daniel Bacquelaine told RTL radio.
The country’s Infrabel rail network said it was suspending services in the southern half of the country on Thursday, given the risks to travel.
“It is indeed impossible to ensure the safe movement of trains for passengers or to have access to strategic areas for their staff,” Transport Minister Georges Gilkinet told Belga news agency.
The southern Dutch province of Limburg which is bordered by Germany and Belgium also reported widespread damage with rising waters threatening to cut off the small city of Valkenburg west of Maastricht.
Local news footage showed small rivers of water flowing through the scenic city centre’s streets and at least one old age home had been evacuated.
Officials also closed off several roads including the busy A2 highway, while fears remained that water from heavy rains in Germany and Belgium would push up river levels as it reached the Netherlands.
Meanwhile the Luxembourg government set up a crisis cell to respond to emergencies triggered by heavy rains overnight as Prime Minister Xavier Bettel reported “several homes” had been flooded and were “no longer inhabitable”.