Hundreds considered missing in Europe floods are safe, even as toll rises

European authorities have revised down the number of people missing as waters receded after devastating flooding in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland last week, even as the death toll continues to rise.

>> Melissa Eddy and Megan SpeciaThe New York Times
Published : 20 July 2021, 04:31 AM
Updated : 20 July 2021, 04:40 AM

More than 700 people who were considered missing after the heavy floods ripped buildings from their foundations, overturned cars, and inundated homes and streets have been identified as safe after days of uncertainty, police in Cologne, Germany, said late Sunday.

But at least 150 people remain missing in that area alone, and the total still unaccounted for across the broader region hit by the catastrophic flooding is unclear. During the height of the inundation, some 1,300 people were considered missing in just one German district, Ahrweiler.

Hours earlier, the death toll from days of flooding climbed to at least 196 across the region.

In Belgium, 31 people have now been confirmed dead, according to authorities, with 127 more missing as of Monday morning. In Germany, at least 164 people have been confirmed dead.

German police said Monday that 117 people had died in Ahrweiler, a district in the north of Rhineland-Palatinate state, while 749 others had been injured. Rescue teams there are still combing the communities along the Ahr Valley, trying to establish how many are missing, officials said.

Local authorities in Ahrweiler said Thursday that 1,300 people were missing, but they have not updated that number since. Police in the nearby city of Koblenz have released new figures on victims, but not on the number of missing, which they say is too difficult to work out accurately, given the broken communication networks and the possibility that some people could have been registered as missing multiple times.

Elsewhere, at least 47 people died in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and one other died Sunday in Bavaria, authorities said.

As the floodwaters have retreated, the region has begun taking stock of the damage and asking questions about how the storm, which was accurately predicted by forecasters earlier in the week, could have led to such a significant loss of life.

Peter Altmaier, the German economy minister, told the newspaper Bild that as soon as emergency aid had been delivered to the areas left devastated by the flooding, it would be crucial to conduct an analysis of the potential failures.

“We will have to look at whether there were things that didn’t go well, whether there were things that went wrong, and then they have to be corrected,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “That isn’t about finger-pointing — it’s about improvements for the future.”

Armin Schuster, the head of Germany’s federal office for civil protection and disaster assistance, told the radio station Deutschlandfunk that criticism of the country’s flood warning system had been misplaced, noting that 150 alerts were sent from Wednesday to Saturday.

“The warning infrastructure has not been our problem, but how authorities and the population react sensitively to these warnings,” he said, according to the news outlet Deutsche Welle.

Herbert Reul, the state interior minister of North Rhein-Westphalia, rejected accusations that the blame could be laid squarely on the lack of a robust warning system. He told reporters in Düsseldorf, the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, on Monday that while mistakes were sure to have happened, the situation was more complicated and that disasters caused by weather are more unpredictable than he felt was being reflected in the ongoing debate in Germany.

“The larger problem is that people don’t take it seriously enough,” when they receive a flood warning or are told to evacuate, Reul said. “Or they don’t want to be told what to do, or they say, ‘I am staying here anyway.’”

Flooding experts noted last week that there had most likely been a disconnect between the forecasts of the disaster and the localised alert systems that communicate the level of risk to residents.

But the German interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who spoke to reporters as he visited the Steinbachtal Dam in North Rhine-Westphalia, rejected criticism that federal authorities had failed to issue sufficient alarms.

“Warnings go to the states and to the communities, which make decisions. It’s not Berlin that declares a state of emergency; that is done locally,” he said, according to Reuters. “The channels of communication for which the federal government is responsible worked.”

The extent of the flooding was astounding, meteorologists and German officials have said, and many have pointed to the impact of climate change on the severity of weather events as a major factor.

Studies have found that severe storms happen more frequently as a result of climate change, because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and generate more, and more powerful, rainfalls.

But even as leaders began to analyse why so many communities seemed unprepared for the flooding, the rescue and recovery efforts continued. And other European nations were increasingly playing a role.

More than 300 rescue workers from Austria, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have travelled to Belgium in the past two days to support search-and-rescue efforts, and Belgium for the first time asked other European Union countries for support through the bloc’s special civil protection mechanism. Thousands of Belgians have also replied to a call for volunteers issued by the Belgian Red Cross.

“The solidarity I have seen is heartwarming,” Annelies Verlinden, the Belgian interior minister, told reporters Monday. She said that the festivities planned for National Day on July 21 would be scaled down and that the holiday would honour “Belgian heroes.”

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