Rescue workers are racing to find the hundreds of people still missing in floods that have caused devastation in western Germany and Belgium, as the death toll from the disaster reached 170.
Some 143 people have died in Germany after burst rivers and flash floods earlier this week caused homes to collapse and ripped up roads and power lines.
While the race to find survivors continues, hundreds of people are still missing or unreachable, as floodwater continues to hamper rescue efforts and make some areas inaccessible.
Rescuers worked tirelessly to deal with the damage caused by receding water on Saturday. But as the floodwater dispersed, thoughts also turned to the lengthy job of rebuilding devastated communities.
The death toll in western Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate state, home to the badly hit Ahrweiler county, rose to 98 and another 43 people were confirmed dead in neighboring North Rhine-Westphalia state.
Belgium’s national crisis center said the country’s confirmed death toll has risen to 27.
The floods were caused by days of heavy rain which turned normally minor rivers and streets into raging torrents that swept away cars, engulfed homes and trapped residents.
RWE, Germany’s largest power producer, said on Saturday its opencast mine in Inden and the Weisweiler coal-fired power plant were affected, adding that the plant was running at lower capacity after the situation stabilised. The utility expects damages will to cost millions to repair.
Immediately after the flooding on Wednesday and Thursday, German authorities listed large numbers of people as missing – something apparently caused in large part by confusion, multiple reporting and communications difficulties in the affected areas, some of which lacked electricity and telephone services.
By Saturday, authorities still feared finding more people dead, but said the numbers unaccounted for had dropped constantly, without offering specific figures.
In Belgium, 103 people were listed as missing on Saturday, but the crisis centre said lost or uncharged mobile phones and people taken to hospitals without identification who had not had an opportunity to contact relatives were believed to be factors in the tally.
In Erftstadt, a town southwest of Cologne, a harrowing rescue effort unfolded on Friday when the ground in a neighbourhood gave way. At least three houses and part of a mansion in the town’s Blessem district collapsed.
The German military used armoured vehicles to clear away cars and trucks overwhelmed by the floodwaters on a nearby road, some of which remained at least partly submerged.
Officials feared that some people did not manage to escape in Erftstadt, but no casualties were confirmed by Saturday afternoon.
German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited rescue workers and others in the town. He said: “A lot of people have lost everything they spent their lives building up – their possessions, their home, the roof over their heads.
“It may only be possible to clear up in weeks how much damage needs to be compensated.”
Mr Steinmeier said that people in the affected areas needed continuing support.
“Many people here in these regions have nothing left but their hope, and we must not disappoint this hope,” he said.
Mr Steinmeier added it would take weeks before the full damage, expected to require several billions of euros in reconstruction funds, could be assessed.
Visiting Erftstadt with Mr Steinmeier, North Rhine-Westphalia governor Armin Laschet promised to organise aid for those immediately affected “in the coming days”.
Mr Laschet said regional and federal authorities would discuss in the coming days how to help rebuilding efforts. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet plans to discuss the issue on Wednesday.
“We will do everything so that what needs to be rebuilt can be rebuilt,” he said.
As water levels fell in Belgium on Saturday, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen visited some areas on Saturday afternoon.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to travel to Rhineland Palatinate, the state that is home to the devastated village of Schuld on Sunday.
Some 98 people are known to have died in the region, which has been the worst hit in Germany and Belgium.
Parts of the southern Netherlands also experienced heavy flooding, although thousands of residents were allowed to return home Saturday morning after being evacuated on Thursday and Friday.
The Netherlands remains on high alert as overflowing rivers threatened towns and villages throughout the southern province of Limburg.
Tens of thousands of residents in the region have been evacuated in the past two days, while soldiers, fire brigades and volunteers worked frantically throughout Friday night to enforce dykes and prevent flooding.
The Dutch have so far escaped disaster on the scale of its neighbours, and as of Saturday morning no casualties had been reported.
Luxembourg and France have also been affected by flooding, which erupted amid relentless rain and storms.
Additional reporting by agencies