“Walk along to the cellar,” says Janine Muijlkens. She has been living with her wife Agnes Lejeune in Schin op Geul in South Limburg for seven years now. Here on Tuesday at the end of the afternoon the first water flowed into the basement of their house in Schin op Geul. Through the door of the low-lying garden. Via the wells that could no longer process the large amount of rainwater. And through the walls. The refrigerator and freezer, the exercise bike’s treadmill, the washing machine and two antique cabinets: they’ve all been under two to seventy centimeters of water.
Also read the live blog about the severe weather in Limburg: KNMI announces code red for the province of Limburg
“Mud everywhere,” Agnes sighs, still fiddling with a dryer. Janine: „We were busy until last night. With brushes and pullers. And today too. We have both taken leave.” They got a lot of help from neighbors. “That was fantastic,” she says. “Misery fraternizes.” They got pumps and pistons. And knowledge of electricity. “We are two girls. We don’t know about that. We needed people to tell us what to do.” There is still a lot of water in the garden. And then more rain is forecast. There are sandbags against the windows. “When the rain peak comes, we will barricade the place. And then just wait.”
Windshield wipers work overtime
Schin op Geul is one of the many villages in the South Limburg hills that have been affected by flooding. The rain comes pouring down from the sky. Cars whip into puddles, driving on roads that have been hastily set up as detours, impassable if the main roads are here and there. Windshield wipers work overtime. Motorists open their windows to warn each other. In Wijlre, near the bridge over the Kleine Geul, next to the Brand beer brewery, there are traffic jams with cars that eventually choose the cycle path as their route. On the bridge, curious people take photos and make videos of the water that first widens and then squeezes under the arches of the bridge. Campsites are being evacuated. The army has been deployed. Fire trucks are parked on the yards of dairy farms. Huge mounds of sand and mud lie on the street, fenced off by red-and-white posts. Employees of municipalities and the Limburg water board install pumps and dig drainage channels at intersections.
In the valley of the Caumerbeek, a tidal wave presented itself on Tuesday evening with an ominous swelling murmur. The water flowed over the dike from the rainwater buffer and seconds later the dike broke. The mud water poured onto the Caumermolen, a fourteenth-century watermill in the valley of the Caumerbeek. “The water was eventually one and a half meters high,” says owner Luc Peeters. She pulled herself to safety, watching the furniture float and her car sink into brown water. The damage is in the hundreds, Peeters heard the insurance expert say. “It was a chain reaction,” explains Peeters. “Higher up in the valley of the Caumerbeek, the dam of a fish pond first broke.” The water then plunged tens of meters down towards the rainwater buffer of the Limburg water board. It couldn’t handle the water, and then the three-metre high dyke near the Peeters mill broke. The hole is eight meters wide. After the Caumermolen, the mud water rippled down the valley, on its way to another antique watermill, the sixteenth-century Oliemolen. A rainwater buffer flooded there too. The Oil Mill was also under one and a half meters of water in no time. The three residents had to be brought onto dry land by the fire brigade.
‘It was horrible’
Most pity went out to owner Eugène Hounjet of hotel-restaurant Op de Beek in Schin op Geul on Wednesday. “It was terrible,” he says, pointing to the halls that have been under water. “The water came from every nook and cranny. It was incomprehensible. In an hour and a half the water was so high.” He can no longer use four hotel rooms. Furniture is partly destroyed. The water came from the Scheumer, a stream that flows right past the hotel. “It suddenly became seven to eight meters wide.” Some guests have left. A number of campsite guests have withdrawn. Guests have also stayed. Jos Dekkers, who came to Limburg with his wife Gerry from Druten in Gelderland, calls the flood “unimaginable” and finds it especially “terrible” for the owner. They had to leave their room because the ceiling was leaking, and they continued their short vacation from their room on the second floor. Now they go for a walk. “Yes, we come home soaking wet.” And more rain is coming. “But it won’t get as high as the second floor,” says Gerry.
Stay out. We can’t use disaster tourists
Just outside Schin op Geul, a mudflow washed through the Opscheumer on Tuesday evening, a beautiful lane that is now populated by aid workers and busily gesturing residents. They discuss what happened: a lot of soil and pebbles from a higher path has come loose, been swept up by the water and clogged the sewers. As a result, the water rose through the drains in the houses.
Gertie Roks has also been duped. Water poured in through the back door. She dried everything with “a lot of towels and a lot of sheets”. She doesn’t have much damage. “Fortunately I only have tarpaulin and tiles.” Less fortunate are her neighbors, who moved just two months ago. The horse pasture is flooded; the newly laid laminate has been destroyed; the barns were empty. “Don’t put our name in the paper, or my old neighbors will laugh at me.”
In the village of Ransdaal, the water also flowed through the streets like a river for hours on Tuesday. “Usually that water disappears quickly, for example after a downpour. But this was really different”, says Jos Canisius in the pouring rain. He has smashed a lot of sandbags. Behind his house is one of the buffers that should hold excess water. “But that buffer was full and then everything suddenly flowed down.” Yesterday he measured eighty millimeters of water, this afternoon it is already forty.
The flooding is unprecedented, says dijkgraaf Patrick van der Broeck of the Limburg water board. “We have never experienced anything like this here. The water comes at us from all sides.” According to him, the situation in North and Central Limburg was reasonably under control on Wednesday. Attention is paid to the Maas; the water level has risen rapidly there. “Several days faster than usual with elevated water levels in winter. That is unique.”
On Wednesday, for example, about fourteen hundred cubic meters per second flowed through the Meuse. “While the forecast for Thursday is more than two thousand.” The situation in the South Limburg Heuvelland is downright alarming.
Dijkgraaf Van der Broeck: „We now have five hundred buffers, depressions in the landscape, which hold the water. But we don’t have enough buffers yet. Moreover, these buffers are designed for rain showers that fall once every 25 years. What falls now belongs to the category that falls once in a hundred years. This has to do with climate change. We only expected the showers that are falling now in 2050.”
It is ‘all hands on deck’ at the water board. “Fortunately, the involvement is enormous. There are even former employees who are now reporting and saying: give me a vest like that.” Van der Broeck does have a message for the Dutch people. “Stay out. We cannot use disaster tourists.”
With the cooperation of Joep Dohmen
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 15, 2021