The German government on Monday pledged to improve the country’s under-fire warning systems as emergency services continued to search for victims of the worst flooding in living memory, with at least 165 people confirmed dead.
The west of the country was deluged over two days last week, with torrents of water sweeping away trees, cars and bridges and destroying swathes of housing.
Many victims in Germany were found dead in sodden cellars after attempting to retrieve valuables, while others were swept away by the sheer force of the water.
A total of 117 people are now confirmed to have died in Rhineland-Palatinate state, with 47 victims in neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and one in Bavaria.
At least 31 people also died in Belgium in the floods, and later torrential rain caused havoc in southern Germany and several neighbouring countries.
“We haven’t been to all the houses yet, we must assume that we will find more bodies,” said Rhineland Palatinate’s regional interior minister Roger Lewentz.
The number of people missing remains unclear, but Lewentz said authorities have been unable to reach more than a thousand in Rhineland-Palatinate, mainly because of disrupted communication networks.
The situation is similar in NRW, where police on Sunday said more than 700 residents initially unaccounted for had since been contacted, but several dozen remain missing.
Government spokeswoman Martina Fietz said the national warning system and mobile phone app Nina had “worked” but admitted that “our experiences with this disaster show that we need to do more and better”.
Armin Schuster, president of the government’s civil protection agency (BBK), called on German radio for sirens to be reinstated in more areas as part of the country’s disaster warnings system.
Although meteorological services had forecast torrential rain and flash floods, many residents said they were caught off-guard by rapidly rising waters.
The floods caused sweeping power cuts and knocked down telecommunication antennas, preventing residents from receiving warnings in time.
Under Germany’s federal system, it is up to the 16 regional states to organise responses to flood alerts and coordinate efforts with the civil protection office and the fire brigade.
Annalena Baerbock, the Green party candidate to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor after elections on September 26, on Monday called for a more centralised approach.
“In my view, the federal government must play a much stronger coordinating role,” she told the ARD broadcaster.
But during a visit to the flood-ravaged town of Euskirchen in North Rhine-Westphalia, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said it would be “completely inconceivable that such a disaster could be dealt with centrally from any one place”.
“I believe that we are still in the right position in Germany with our organisation of civil protection and disaster management,” he said.
Nevertheless, Seehofer said “we owe it to the families and the victims” to make improvements where necessary.
Visiting the flood zone in Rhineland-Palatinate on Sunday, Merkel said lessons should be learnt but sometimes “things happen so quickly that you can’t fully escape the force of nature.”
The disaster has catapulted climate change to the top of the agenda in Germany, ahead of September’s polls that will mark the end of Merkel’s 16 years in power.
Experts say that because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, climate change increases the risk and intensity of flooding.
As the clean-up gets under way, the bill from the flood damage is estimated to run in the billions of euros.
Merkel’s cabinet plans to approve an emergency aid package on Wednesday, which German media expects will total around 400 million euros.
In the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, the search for bodies continued amid mud-covered streets piled high with debris.
“They are still searching. We will find dead people for sure,” a resident of the town told AFP, while another said he had witnessed a body being carried away on a cart by soldiers.
Seehofer spoke of an “unbelievable tragedy” and said he had “never experienced anything like it in my life”.
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