Anatoli Neugebauer is standing just a hundred metres from his family home, at the edge of the Blessem district of Erftstadt, a commuter-belt town 12 miles (20km) south of Cologne. Even though flood waters from the Erft River had begun to recede by midday on Friday, he still had to wade through waist-high brown water just to get inside the stuccoed terrace house.
“It’s completely indescribable,” says Neugebauer, 40. “A catastrophe.”
“I was there twice yesterday trying to save what I could. But you open the door and the water’s to your chest and you just wonder, why am I even doing this? It’s all wrecked.”
Neugebauer was one of the 1,905 residents of the village evacuated on Thursday as the river began to overflow after record rainfall.
Familiar landscape turned into treacherous terrain: a gravel quarry south of Blessem, 40 hectares (99 acres) wide and 60 metres deep, rapidly filled with water, its edge expanding towards the town through headward erosion, swallowing up several cars, three half-timbered buildings and parts of a castle.
Local authorities are still searching for 15 people they believe to have been inside the houses. “We assume there to be fatalities but we don’t know for sure,” says Herbert Reul, the interior minister of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia.
A near-stationary low-pressure weather system brought record levels of rain in the Rhein-Erft-Kreis region until about 9pm on Wednesday, initially flooding fields and farms.
Hay and vegetable fields that a few weeks ago were wilting under years of drought conditions were suddenly filled with standing water. Basements and ground-floor houses and apartments in the farming region began to flood.
“For a while we thought we would have to evacuate our 200 animals,” says farmer Peter Zens, who runs the Gertrudenhof petting zoo in Hürth, located halfway between Erftstadt and Cologne. “But we spent 18 hours pumping out water through the night, and in the end we had a lucky escape.”
But as Zens managed to drain his farm, waters in the rivers, brooks and streams that cross the region were beginning to rise. “We have the Rotbach brook here that often dries out in the summer,” Zens says. “Now it was a foaming stream like the Rhine.”
When the river burst its banks the following day, it nonetheless caught many in Erftstadt by surprise.
“We were constantly riding our bikes through town, watching as the river waters grew higher,” says Neugebauer. “We waited as long as we could, but when we saw the trucks on Luxemburger Strasse underwater we packed up the car and the kids and went to a family in the next town over.”
Water along Luxemburger Strasse, the main thoroughfare connecting Erftstadt to Cologne, appears to have rushed in without warning, trapping lorries and cars alike, throwing vehicles up against guardrails and along the crumbling walls of the on-ramp. Parts of the A1 motorway outside the town crumbled and collapsed into the Erft.
Neugebauer says they had left before receiving any official evacuation orders. Officials say many others in the town did not heed the warning to leave. Police say they used boats to rescue about 50 people from their homes.
Storms and floods are nothing new in Rhein-Erft-Kreis, an area dotted with opencast mines historically used to extract brown coal, gravel or sand.
When the owners of the Blessem gravel quarry applied for an expansion in 2015, local authorities granted their request on the condition they would build a 1.2km protective wall to prevent the pit from filling with water in the event of a flood.
But the kind of extreme weather events the world is seeing with increasing frequency come with unpredictable consequences. The protective wall between the gravel pit and the Erft proved ineffective as the water overflowed higher up the river, gushing through the streets of the town before collecting at the lowest point.
Matthias Habel, a Bonn-based geographer who studied flood protection measures in the area as part of his degree, says the catastrophic outcome of the floods would not come as a surprise to those familiar with the situation on the ground.
“Where the Erft passes Erftstadt it is no longer a naturally flowing river but more like an artificially straightened canal,” Habel tells the Guardian. “It flows much faster here than elsewhere and lacks the natural floodplains that could deal with overflow.”
On Friday afternoon, the town was nearly empty of people, other than soldiers trying in vain to keep onlookers at bay.
At the far end of Frauentaler Strasse, normally 100 metres from the Erft, a redbrick building was missing its bottom floors, the walls hanging precariously over the flood water.
Water was oil-slicked and the smell of gas hung in the air. Improvised bags of potting soil and sandbox sand had failed to keep the flood from seeping past: water marks on the older brick buildings showed it reaching at least over a metre high.
People from nearby villages arrived to check on their neighbours. “It’s absolutely shocking,” one young couple said. “We drive through here every day and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”