At least 21 people have died and dozens are missing or awaiting rescue from rooftops after heavy rain and floods caused buildings to collapse in the western German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North-Rhine Westphalia.
In the Rhineland-Palatinate district of Schuld, set in the Eifel mountain range, police said on Thursday morning they were searching for about 70 missing people following the collapse of six houses. At least eight people are confirmed to have died, officials said.
“There are dead people, there are missing people, and many who are still in danger”, said Rhineland-Palatinate’s state premier Malu Dreyer. “We have never seen a catastrophe like this,” the Social Democrat politician added. “It is truly devastating.”
A spokesperson for the Koblenz police told Reuters that an “unclear number” of people needed to be rescued from roofs.
“There are many places where fire brigades and rescue workers have been deployed. We do not yet have a very precise picture because rescue measures are continuing,” the spokesperson added.
The full extent of the damage in the region was still unclear after many villages were cut off by floodwater and landslides that made roads impassable. Videos posted on social media showed cars floating down streets and houses partly collapsed in some places.
In the neighbouring western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, at least 13 people have lost their lives in the floods, including two fire fighters who drowned during rescue missions.
In the cities of Cologne and Solingen, three people died in separate incidents after being trapped by the floods in their cellars. In Leverkusen, a hospital with 468 patients had to be evacuated overnight following a power failure, after the river Dhünn breached its banks.
With Germans voting in September to choose a successor to the chancellor, Angela Merkel, the extreme weather could heighten awareness of global heating, a topic with which the Greens, running second to Merkel’s conservatives, have so far failed to dominate the agenda.
On national broadcaster ZDF, news anchor Claus Kleber commented that low-pressure areas themselves were nothing new in the western parts of Germany. “But the fact that they are becoming more common has to do with the Arctic and the air above it getting warmer and weakening the jet stream,” Kleber said. “Therefore it has to do with climate change.”
Bernd Mehlig, an environment official from North Rhine-Westphalia, told WDR that the situation being experienced by the state was ordinarily only seen in winter. “Something like this, with this intensity, is completely unusual in summer,” he said.
According to network operation Westnetz, 200,000 people were affected by power outages in the two western states.
The army was deployed across North-Rhine Westphalia on Wednesday to help stranded residents, and rail, road and river transport has been disrupted in the country’s most populous state.
The floods were caused by a slow-moving low-pressure weather system, which brought down 148 litres of rain per square metre within 48 hours to a part of Germany that usually sees around 80 litres within the whole of July.
The German weather service issued an extreme weather warning on Wednesday for parts of three western states, while Hagen, a city of 180,000, declared a state of emergency after the Volme river burst its banks.
Hagen’s crisis team said that water would reach levels seen not more than four times a century in coming hours and warned everyone who lived near the town’s rivers to move to higher ground immediately, public broadcaster WDR reported.
Parts of Hagen were described as being isolated by high waters and all but inaccessible. Soldiers had to be sent to clear some areas of the city. Residents were also told to leave one district of regional capital Düesseldorf.
One care home in Hagen had to be evacuated, while across the region firefighters were busy pumping water out of hundreds of cellars. In one hospital, flood waters caused lifts to fail.
The firefighter died when he lost his footing in flood waters and was swept away, authorities told WDR. Two men, aged 53 and 81, were missing elsewhere in the region.
Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the conservatives’ candidate to succeed Merkel, cancelled a party meeting in Bavaria to return to his home region on Thursday.