At least 115 people have died in devastating floods across parts of western Germany and Belgium, officials said, as rescue operations and the search for hundreds still unaccounted for continue.
German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was “stunned” by the devastation and pledged support to the families of those killed and to cities and towns facing significant damage.
“In the hour of need, our country stands together,” he said in a statement. “It’s important that we show solidarity for those from whom the flood has taken everything.”
Authorities in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate said 60 people had died there, including at least 12 residents of a care home for people with disabilities.
In neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia state, officials put the death toll at 43, but warned that the figure could rise further.
Rescuers are rushing to help people trapped in their homes in the town of Erftstadt, south west of Cologne. Regional authorities said several people had died after their houses collapsed due to subsidence, and aerial pictures showed what appeared to be a massive sinkhole.
“We managed to get 50 people out of their houses last night,” said Frank Rock, head of the county administration. “We know of 15 people who still need to be rescued.”
Speaking to German broadcaster n-tv, Mr Rock said authorities had no number yet for how many had died.
“One has to assume that under the circumstances some people didn’t manage to escape,” he said.
Laureta and Altuna Hyseni called their father on Wednesday evening to say the water was rising fast in their home in Rhineland-Palatinate, before the line went dead.
After hours without any sign of life, the two were rescued by helicopter from the roof and reunited with their father.
“We just wept,” said Shefik Hyseni to the Bild tabloid. “Now we have to see what’s left of our house”
The extreme water levels mean several dams in North Rhine-Westphalia remain under severe pressure and are considered instable, forcing the evacuation of dozens of towns and village.
Authorities said late on Thursday that about 1,300 people in Germany were still listed as missing, but cautioned that the high figure could be due to duplication of data and difficulties reaching people because of disrupted roads and phone connections.
In a provisional tally, the Belgian death toll rose to 12, with five people still missing, local authorities and media reports said.
The flash floods this week followed days of heavy rainfall which turned streams and streets into raging torrents that swept away cars and caused houses to collapse across the region.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and US president Joe Biden expressed their sorrow over the loss of life during a news conference at the White House late on Thursday.
The governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, Armin Laschet, has called an emergency cabinet meeting for Friday.
On Thursday night he said the rising number of extreme weather episodes – drought and flood – were clearly linked to climate change.
“That means that we need a greater pace in climate protection measures - on a national, European and world level,” he said.
Floods – and the response of political leaders – have swung German elections in the past, but Mr Laschet said “the situation is too serious here to generate [election-friendly] images”.
Opposition parties, in particular the Greens, have urged him to recalibrate what they call “business-friendly” climate change policies in his election manifesto.
Weather forecasts give a mixed picture for the days ahead. While rain has passed in some regions and water levels are dropping, revealing the full scale of destruction, Rhineland-Palatinate is expecting another 40 litres of rain per square metre, strong winds and hail.
Malu Dreyer, the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state, said the disaster showed the need to speed up efforts to curb global warming.
“We’ve experienced droughts, heavy rain and flooding events several years in a row, including in our state,” she told the Funke media group. “Climate chance isn’t abstract any more. We are experiencing it up close and painfully.”
She accused the Mr Laschet and Ms Merkel’s centre-right Union bloc of hindering efforts to achieve greater greenhouse gas reductions in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and a major emitter of planet-warming gases.
Thousands of people remain homeless after their houses were destroyed or deemed at risk by authorities, including several villages around the Steinbach reservoir that experts say could collapse under the weight of the floods.
The German army has deployed 900 soldiers to help with the rescue and clear-up effort.
Across the border in Belgium, officials said the official death toll has gone up to 18, with an estimated 19 missing. Most of the drowned were found around Liege, where the rains hit hardest.
In the southern Dutch province of Limburg, troops piled sandbags to strengthen a 0.7-mile stretch of dyke along the Maas river and police helped evacuate some low-lying neighbourhoods.
Caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte said on Thursday night that the government was officially declaring flood-hit regions a disaster area, meaning businesses and residents are eligible for compensation for damage.
Belgium’s king Willem-Alexander visited the region on Thursday night and called the scenes “heart-breaking”.
Meanwhile, sustained rainfall in Switzerland has caused several rivers and lakes to break their banks.
Public broadcaster SRF reported that a flash flood swept away cars, flooded basements and destroyed small bridges in the northern villages of Schleitheim und Beggingen late on Thursday. – Additional reporting from AP