At least 120 people have died and around 1,300 people are still missing across western Europe in the wake of extreme rainfall, bursting rivers, and heavy flooding that devastated parts of Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
The bulk of the casualties were in the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, where authorities say some mobile networks are still out of service, making it impossible to contact people on the ground. Some 114,000 people remained without power Friday. Most of the 1,300 people unaccounted for are in the northern part of Rhineland-Palatinate.
The stories and photos coming out of the area are ghastly. Floodwaters swept through a disabled care home in a town south of Cologne, killing 12 of the 35 residents as they slept. The village of Schuld, population 700, was almost entirely destroyed by floods, and dozens are still missing there after houses collapsed.
“In some areas, we have not seen this much rainfall in 100 years,” Andreas Friedrich, a German weather service spokesman, told CNN. He also said that “in some areas we’ve seen more than double the amount of rainfall which has caused flooding and unfortunately some building structures to collapse.”
Authorities say they are taking in calls from people trapped in their homes by the flood but aren’t able to send rescue crews to get them. A minister for the state of Rhine-Westphalia said rescuers had carried out “about 30,000 missions” airlifting people from flooded and destroyed homes and buildings. A hospital on the banks of the Maas River in the Netherlands, which overflowed its banks and caused damage in multiple areas, is preparing to evacuate 200 patients in hopes of avoiding more flooding.
“The network has completely collapsed. The infrastructure has collapsed. Hospitals can’t take anyone in. Nursing homes had to be evacuated,” a spokeswoman for the regional government of Cologne told Reuters.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said this “could be the most catastrophic flooding our country has ever seen” and has declared July 20 a national day of mourning even as the toll of the disaster is still becoming clear.
The floods were preceded by widespread heavy rainfall, with totals that have shattered records. In France, the French national weather service reported that the equivalent of two months’ worth of rain fell over the past two days. Many locations saw up to 7 inches (178 millimeters) of rain over two days, according to the Weather Channel. Some totals were even more extreme, though.
A station in Cologne clocked 6 inches (154 millimeters) of rain in 24 hours; the previous high had been around 3.7 (95 millimeters) of rain in one day. CNN reports that Reifferscheid, a town near Bonn, received 8.1 inches (207 millimeters) in just nine hours.
In Hof County, located in Bavaria along the Czech border, a station recorded 3.34 inches (85 millimeters) in just 12 hours, according to Accuweather. It came less than a week after the same station saw 3.5 inches (89 millimeters) in the course of a day, meaning the fresh batch of rain fell on already saturated soils that couldn’t absorb more water. That, along with how widespread the heavy rain was, worsened flooding.
“With climate change we do expect all hydro-meteorological extremes to become more extreme,” Carlo Buontempo, the director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, told the Guardian. “What we have seen in Germany is broadly consistent with this trend.”
Heavy rainfall has become both more common and intense due to the climate crisis. That’s due to a simple relationship that warmer air can hold more water, increasing the odds of heavy downpours. When that extreme rainfall comes, it’s falling on infrastructure built for another era. This reality has unfortunately come to bear in Europe this week with deadly results. Other regions of the world have also seen intense rainfall recently with destructive results. Detroit was flooded late last month while the New York region, including the city’s subway, was recently overwhelmed by an afternoon of heavy rain.
It’s not just physical infrastructure that has failed to cope with the floods. The European Flood Awareness System, which monitors flood threats across the continent, issued an “extreme” flood warning earlier this week in anticipation of the heavy rain across multiple countries. Yet parts of Europe seem to have been so unprepared for the deluge.
Germany’s federal meteorological service told Politico it had passed on the warning to local authorities and that they were responsible for evacuating citizens. Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist with EFAS, told Politico the disaster was “a monumental failure of the system.”
“I would have expected people to be evacuating, you don’t expect to see so many people dying from floods in 2021. This is very, very serious indeed,” she said.
The floods are coming just ahead of this year’s German elections, set to be held in September, when the country will elect its new chancellor to replace Angela Merkel. The two leading candidates are Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party and the center-right Christian Democratic Union’s Armin Laschet, who is also the state president of North Rhine-Westphalia, where much of the destruction hit. There’s a chance, some analysts say, that the disasters could push public opinion more towards the Green Party and climate activism.
Regardless of party, many German politicians voiced concern over how climate change may have juiced up this disaster.
“We’ve experienced droughts, heavy rain and flooding events several years in a row, including in our state,” said Malu Dreyer, the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate. “Climate [change] isn’t abstract anymore. We are experiencing it up close and painfully.”