Shaking her head, Monique Hallet (67) looks from under her umbrella at the completely flooded main street of Tilff, a village in the hills south of Liège. Many buildings are one and a half to two meters under water. The roof of some cars is just visible. A little further on, the culprit is swirling, the otherwise lovely river Ourthe that has been turned into a gigantic coffee-brown maelstrom due to abundant rainfall.
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“We’ve certainly never had it this bad before,” says Hallet, who lives safely in a house on the hills. “The square by the river was sometimes flooded, but this is really disastrous. Look at that beautiful new Bowling Center over there, just built and already spoiled.” Dejectedly, she puts her phone in the pocket. She can’t get in touch with a friend, who has been trapped in one of the flooded houses since Wednesday evening. “They have no more electricity and the battery is of course already empty.”
However, Hallet’s girlfriend is better off than a friend of hers who lived by the river. He wanted to quickly grab something from the cellar, she says, but just then the water gushed in in large quantities, causing him to drown – like one of at least twenty people who died in Belgium as a result of the storm. Then volunteers appear in Tilff with boats to evacuate people. “Would you like to have a look at the cat of a friend of mine in that house around the corner,” a young woman asks. She has already brought a basket.
Steep valleys and picturesque villages
The inhabitants of the Ourthedal are not only very fond of their environment. With its steep valleys and picturesque villages, it has long been an attraction for young and old, for Belgians and foreigners. Many youth camps are organized in which canoes or kayaks are used. But the region is also popular with older hikers and cyclists. Tourism is also the main source of income for the region.
Yet the Ourthe is always unpredictable. Last summer the stream was still so low that it was not possible to canoe at all, and then you had to stretch out on the stones in the water to get completely wet, a year later the river is everywhere many times wider, deeper and faster then when. “I also saw kayaks all over on Thursday,” laughs Quolin André, who has been managing a campsite at Comblain au Pont for 28 years. “But there was no one in them, they had been knocked loose upstream by the force of the current.” André, a tall bearded man, has just pointed out a patch of muddy water where eight families camped just a few days ago before rushing through the rising waters. André was lucky. Some other campgrounds in the area are completely submerged.
Powerless, the chef of the five-star hotel saw how it fell prey to the Ourthewater
In Durbuy, a charming town on the Ourthe that advertises itself as the smallest city in the world, on the other hand, there was no saving it. A low-lying large square next to the river, where otherwise hundreds of guests sit on all kinds of terraces, was completely flooded after a pump had failed. The Dutchman Frank Hilferink, the financial chief of the Sanglier hotel and a few other hotels and restaurants in the area, had to watch helplessly as the five-star hotel, which was only put into use last year, fell prey to the Ourthewater.
Precious wine cellar
Six meeting rooms, the reception, a number of dining rooms, the kitchen and a few shops were flooded. He estimates the damage at several million euros. “Fortunately, we were able to save part of our precious wine cellar, including some Rothschild wines,” he says.
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Michel Legros, acting mayor of the also badly hit neighboring town of Hamoir, says he does not allow himself the time to philosophize about the capriciousness of the Ourthe, which gives the region so much but sometimes takes it. “Fortunately, there were no deaths here,” he says in a messy room of the castle where the city council is located. “But we still haven’t been able to evacuate everyone. At some houses the current is so strong that it is too dangerous for firefighters to go there. And the economic damage to the municipality is enormous. While we also had such a bad year because of corona last year. It will be very difficult for many now.”
Legros involuntarily returns to the Ourthe for a while. “Of course it’s great to have such a river and all that beautiful nature,” he says. “But major floods are also part of that. Such is nature.” And then he walks out to give new instructions to the fire brigade.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 17 July 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 17, 2021