Question of guilt plagues German flood clear-up operations.

Last week the village of Schuld was a pretty backwater of 660 people in southwest Germany; today it looks more like the theatre backdrop for Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war drama Mother Courage.

As Germany’s flood death toll tops 160, with many people still missing, what was once a row of half-timbered houses along a cobbled street in Schuld is now a vacant site of broken stones, cables, scrub and random branches.

As women hurry by with bin bags on small wagons, men pass buckets out from the cellars of surviving buildings, and throw their muddy contents on to the even muddier street outside.

The nearby river Ahr has flooded the town before, with 3.6m the last record high-water mark. Last Wednesday evening, after three days of torrential rain, water levels rose to more than 8m before the river ripped through the village. Local mayor Helmut Lussi says the first damage estimate puts the cost at up to €50 million in his village alone.

“It has left scars that won’t be forgotten and cannot be dealt with,” said Lussi, breaking down in tears. “Our lives have changed for ever from one day to the next.”

Five days on from the catastrophic flash floods that washed through west and southwest Germany, many areas still have no drinking water or mobile phone signal, while 30,000 houses are still without power. In Schuld, locals say the clear-up work is a welcome distraction from memories of last Wednesday evening.

Trapped in vehicle

Frank Kache, a member of the local voluntary fire brigade, spent much of Wednesday night trapped in the fire engine, surrounded by floodwater.

“We had people begging us for help, saying their father-in-law was sitting on a cupboard in the first floor of his home with water up to his chest,” he said, his voice trembling. “But when we asked where, and they pointed right into the floodwater, we said we couldn’t help. We had that several times.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Rhineland-Palatinate state premier Malu Dreyer walk through the flood-ravaged village of Schuld. Photograph: Christof Stache/Pool/AFP via Getty

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Rhineland-Palatinate state premier Malu Dreyer walk through the flood-ravaged village of Schuld. Photograph: Christof Stache/Pool/AFP via Getty

Rather than wait for help from outside, locals in Schuld have mobilised themselves into roving teams, doing their best to tackle the worst of the devastation.

“It’s shocking but people aren’t crying, they’re getting stuck in,” said Florian Hinze, from a neighbouring town. “It’s an amazing feeling you get just once in lifetime.”

The floodwaters in Rhineland Palatinate have claimed 117 lives so far, with 170 still missing in the Ahr valley alone, while 46 deaths have been recorded in neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia.

When chancellor Angela Merkel visited Schuld on Sunday afternoon, local man René Haas urged her to help quickly. When she promised to, he added: “Here we stand by our word.”

On Monday morning, as the slow recovery worked across the region, Schuld has become not just a watchword for devastation, but for responsibility as Schuld is, in German, the word for guilt and debt. The so-called “Schuld Frage” – the question of guilt – is now uppermost in many minds. Why, despite days of torrential rain, were no major evacuation warnings issued?

Panic on phone

That is what Dominik Gieler would like to know. The mayor of the nearby village of Rech was speaking to his 67-year-old mother on the phone on Wednesday evening when she began to panic. He remembers his mother shouting, “It’s moving, it’s moving” before the line went dead. Her house was washed away by the floodwaters, he told local media: “I am expecting the worst.”

On Monday German authorities at local, state and federal level batted away responsibility for acting on early-warning systems from July 10th of the growing danger from an extreme low-pressure system.

In North Rhine-Westphalia’s capital, Düsseldorf, officials passed on an extreme weather warning to local authorities, whom they say were responsible for catastrophe planning. In worst-affected regions, some people were told to stay at home, others urged to turn off electrical appliances, while in Schuld, and the rest of the Ahr valley, there was reportedly no warning at all.

On Monday North Rhine-Westphalia state interior minister Herbert Reul promised an “unsparing” full inquiry. His federal colleague Horst Seehofer, visiting the disaster zone on Monday with an eye on September’s federal election, dismissed criticism of Germany’s emergency warning system as “really cheap election tactics”.

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