Andre Langfeld rests with a soft drink in front of his house in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler (27,000 inhabitants). She has been stacking chairs, tables, shelves by the door all day … The furniture, now wet and covered with mud, that until Wednesday she had in her living room and her mother’s room, on the ground floor. He points to a brown mark on the façade at a height of one and a half meters and says: “This is where the water came. The entire street turned into a raging river in a matter of minutes. ” Langfeld, 37, says that neither he nor his mother nor anyone in the village remembers such a flood of the Ahr River in the last 100 years. “We didn’t have time for anything. It all happened very quickly ”, he assures.
Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler is one of the villages in the valley formed by the river Ahr, a tributary of the Rhine, in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, a few kilometers south of Bonn, in western Germany. On Wednesday night, after ten o’clock, a huge flood overflowed the riverbed and flooded several streets. Caroline Friedrich, 43, also describes the waterspout as “a river running through town.” His house, in the upper part, was not damaged, but that of his parents, on Sebastian Street, has been “destroyed”. “My parents live on the ground floor and they were already sleeping. My mother says she sensed something and got out of bed. They had just enough time to run and go up to the neighbor’s house, on the second floor, ”he says in front of the building. His father, sitting in the car, just shakes his head and says, “A disaster.”
Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler tried on Friday to digest the event, which has left a landscape sunk in water and brutal destruction in western Germany. The death toll in the serious floods that also ravaged eastern Belgium during the early hours of Thursday already rises to at least 153, according to figures offered by the authorities on Saturday morning. The majority of confirmed deaths are recorded by Germany, with 133, the highest death toll in a natural disaster since a deadly flood in the North Sea in 1962 that killed about 340 people. The floods on the Elbe River in 2002, which at the time were described by the media as “unique floods in a century”, killed 21 people in eastern Germany and more than 100 throughout the Central European region. Meanwhile, in the Belgian region of Wallonia the balance reaches 20 deaths. Heavy rains have also affected Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland and eastern France.
The town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, which is very touristy due to its wine-making tradition and its landscapes, is still without electricity. The first 24 hours there was neither water nor telephone connection. The hum of generators can be heard everywhere, adding to that of helicopters and sirens from the emergency services. The remains of the flood are still clearly visible: overturned cars, uprooted trees, electrical appliances and all kinds of dirty belongings piled up in front of the houses.
“We saw a torrent of water coming down the street that dragged everything in its path: trees, refrigerators, chairs. It was chilling. “
Eva Bartels, 46-year-old neighbor from Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler
Fire trucks, excavators and ambulances trudged along the roads still covered in a thick layer of mud. “It’s very sad to see my house and my town like this,” says a man in his 70s as he hoses down various toys. The force of the water also ripped the pavement off the sidewalks: sinkholes occur in the streets closest to the river. Of the eight picturesque bridges that allowed to pass from one side of the Ahr to the other, nothing has remained. The two banks are now cut off.
The water took almost 12 hours to come down. “We spent the night as best we could, chatting and drinking red wine,” says 46-year-old Eva Bartels with a sad smile. She lives with her partner and her teenage son on the second floor. On Wednesday night he welcomed the couple from the lower floor and two neighbors whom he saw from his terrace clinging to a fence while the water almost reached their waist: “I yelled at them to try to get to the door. They got it, they went upstairs and I gave them dry clothes. I think I got an hour’s sleep ”. Everything went well, but they were very scared. “We saw a torrent of water coming down the street that dragged everything in its path: trees, refrigerators, chairs. It was chilling, ”he recalls as he shows how the basement of the building has been, where there are still two feet of brown water that smells like gasoline. “I didn’t have anything of much value there, but there were photos from when my son was little. I don’t know if we can get them back ”.
The destruction extends to numerous municipalities in North Rhine-Westphalia (the land more populous, with 18 million inhabitants) and Rhineland-Palatinate (four million). Rescue services have not yet been able to access some areas due to blocked or damaged roads and disabled railways. Some 100,000 people were still without power on Friday. The catastrophe is of “historical dimensions”, said Armin Laschet, conservative candidate for the Chancellery in the September elections and minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Although the water was beginning to recede in some places, in others the situation remained tense, such as in Erftstadt, near Cologne, where the outlook is devastating. Aerial photographs from the DPA agency showed landslides of enormous proportions. A part of the houses were swept away and disappeared.
In a single district, Ahrweiler (129,000 inhabitants), south of Cologne (Rhineland-Palatinate), up to 1,300 people were estimated to be missing, although in many cases it could be due to the cut of telephone lines, both fixed and mobile. Entire towns like Schuld (about 800 inhabitants) were razed, with houses reduced to rubble and streets full of mud.
The Army sent 900 soldiers to collaborate in the rescue and search for missing persons, while Angela Merkel’s government prepares to approve aid.
In Belgium, with 20 deaths and extensive damage, especially in southern Wallonia, the situation is especially serious in the province of Liège, reports Lluís Pellicer from Brussels. Although the weather situation is expected to improve, the stability of many buildings is at risk. “Entire roads and highways have disappeared. It will take months and years to recover, ”said Fabien Beltran, mayor of Trooz (8,200 inhabitants), one of the towns with fatalities.