Merkel visits ‘surreal’ flood scene, wishing help and climate action

BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday examined what she called a “surreal and ghostly” scene in a devastated village, promising swift financial aid and increased political focus on tackling climate change as the number of flood deaths in Western Europe exceeded 180.

Merkel visited Schuld, a village on a tight bend in the Ahr River in western Germany, where many buildings were damaged or destroyed by the rapidly rising waters on Wednesday evening.

Although the mayor of Schuld said no one was killed or injured there, many other places were not so fortunate. The death toll in the Ahrweiler region, where Schuld is located, stood at 112. Authorities said people were still missing and fear the toll could continue to rise.

In the neighboring state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous in Germany, 46 people were killed, including four firefighters. Belgium has confirmed 31 deaths.

Merkel said she was returning from Schuld, still partially littered with rubble and mud under bright sunshine, with “a real picture, I have to say, of the surreal and ghostly situation.”

“It’s shocking – I would almost say that the German language barely has words to describe the havoc that has been wrought,” she said at a press conference in a nearby town.

Merkel said the authorities would work to “put the world back in order in this beautiful region, step by step,” and that her cabinet would approve a short- and medium-term financial aid package on Wednesday.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that more than 300 million euros ($ 354 million) would be needed. And he said the authorities must put in place a longer-term reconstruction program which, according to the experience of previous floods, will run into billions of euros.

“Fortunately, Germany is a country that can handle this financially,” said Merkel, who is stepping down as chancellor following elections in September. “Germany is a strong country and we will resist this force of nature in the short term, but also in the medium and long term, through a policy more respectful of nature and the climate than we have done in recent years. years. It will also be necessary.

Climatologists say the link between extreme weather and global warming is undeniable, and the urgency to tackle climate change is undeniable.

Scientists cannot yet say for sure whether climate change caused the flooding, but they insist it is certainly exacerbating the extreme weather disasters on display around the world.

“We must step up the fight against climate change,” said Merkel, highlighting the policies already put in place by Germany and the European Union to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “And yet the second lesson is that you have to be very careful about adapting” to climate change.

Investing in the fight against climate change is expensive, she said, but not doing so costs even more.

“A flood is not the example of climate change, but if we look at the loss events of the last few years, decades, then they are just more frequent than they were before – so we have to make a big effort, ”Merkel said.

Although the rain stopped in the worst-affected areas of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, storms and downpours persisted elsewhere in western and central Europe. There was flooding on Saturday evening in the German-Czech border area, in the south-eastern corner of Germany, and beyond the border into Austria.

About 130 people were evacuated in the Berchtesgaden region of Germany after the Ache river flooded. At least one person was killed and the railway line to Berchtesgaden was closed.

The Berchtesgaden region is also home to the Koenigssee sliding track, site of major international bobsleigh, skeleton and tobogganing events for over 50 years. Large segments of this track were destroyed, parts of the concrete chute turned to rubble by flowing water.

A flash flood hit the nearby Austrian town of Hallein on Saturday evening, but no injuries were reported. Further west, floods hit parts of the town of Kufstein. Heavy rains and storms caused severe damage in several parts of Austria.

In the city of Pepinster, in eastern Belgium, soldiers and firefighters searched the wreckage on Sunday for survivors or bodies, according to the public channel RTBF. All the houses still standing were searched, so the effort was focused on those that collapsed and in a valley downstream for anyone who might be washed away by the raging torrent.

The city’s soil remains unstable and several other houses could collapse. “We have to be careful with every step we take,” said firefighter Olivier Jiust.

Pope Francis prayed for the victims of the floods and to support “everyone’s efforts to help those who have suffered serious damage”.

“I express my closeness to the populations of Germany, Belgium and Holland, hit by catastrophic floods,” he said on Sunday during his first public appearance to the faithful on Saint Peter’s Square after a major surgery . “May the Lord welcome the deceased and console the members of his family. “

People in devastated areas will need support and reassurance for a long time to come.

“This flood will leave scars on the people of Schuld – scars you remember, which cannot be overcome, as our lives have changed overnight,” said Mayor Helmut Lussi, bursting out sobbing while speaking.


Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed.


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