Wednesday, February 1, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

In Flooded Europe, Death Toll Rises to More Than 190

With Bavaria in southern Germany still under siege, along with Austria, German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured areas devastated by river overflows and said Germany will restore what has been lost.

(CN) — The death toll from catastrophic flooding in Europe rose to more than 190 on Monday as more bodies were pulled from the debris and floodwaters in Germany and Belgium.

Adding to the misery over the weekend, the same slow-moving low-pressure system that unleashed record amounts of rain in northern Europe continued in Switzerland, Austria and the southern German state of Bavaria. In Bavaria, huge amounts of rain have filled rivers and lakes up to dangerous levels, and turned streets into waterways. The region so far has seen two reported deaths.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured the hardest-hit region of western Germany on Sunday and called what she saw “surreal and ghostly.” She pledged immediate help to rebuild.

“The German language has no words, I think, for the devastation,” Merkel said during a visit of Schuld, a wrecked village on the Ahr River in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Germany's death toll has risen to at least 165, and nearby Belgium's to more than 30. It is Germany's worst natural disaster since a deadly North Sea flood in 1962 killed 340 people.

Search-and-rescue crews in Germany and Belgium continued to look for victims amid the wreckage and hundreds of people remained unaccounted for.

Merkel told flood victims that the German government will take care of them and she guaranteed a full recovery.

“Germany is a strong land and has the means to respond to this,” the chancellor said. “We stand on your side. The federal and state governments will work together, hand-in-hand to restore the world in this lovely region.”

The catastrophic flooding has upended momentous German federal elections set for the end of September. With Merkel opting to not seek reelection after 16 years at the helm, September's Bundestag elections will determine who will replace her.

The ferocity of the flooding has put climate change at the center of the election, a twist that may favor opponents to Merkel's ruling conservative coalition, the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria. The conservatives have a record of supporting business over environmental concerns.

German meteorologists said it was Germany's worst flooding in 500 years and possibly even in a millennium. Scientists warn that a warmer atmosphere can retain more moisture and therefore also trigger massive downpours. Researchers note that the planet's temperature has already risen by between 1 and 1.2 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial times. The scientific community has called it urgent that humanity takes measures to stop the planet from heating up to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Residents and shopkeepers are trying to clear mud from their homes and move unusable furniture outside in Ahrweiler, western Germany, on Saturday. (Thomas Frey/dpa via AP)

This summer was already turning into another summer of climate change agony with massive wildfires raging out of control in Canada, the United States and Siberia due to terrifying heat waves. The flooding in Europe was a stark reminder of the dangerous unpredictability of a warmer planet.

In theory, the disaster should bolster the hopes of Annalena Baerbock, the 40-year-old leader of Germany's resurgent Greens party, or Die Grünen in German. In recent years, many center-left and liberal voters have shifted their support from the mainstream center-left Social Democrats to the Greens. The Social Democrats are in a coalition with Merkel, but they have struggled to hold onto their voters.

The Greens' political platform is centered on taking aggressive steps to fight climate change through massive investment into renewable energy. The Greens also are hawkish on foreign affairs, arguing that human rights abuses in Russia and elsewhere cannot be glossed over, a position that is in line with that of the U.S.

But Baerbock's campaign for the chancellery has not gone as well as her supporters had hoped. She's found herself fending off accusations of plagiarism, padding her curriculum vitae and not properly reporting sources of income.

Cutting a vacation short, Baerbock visited the devastated region over the weekend, but she did so away from television cameras, holding private meetings with flood victims, rescue crews and volunteers. She's refrained from attacking the Merkel government, which has been accused of not heeding emergency warnings about the flooding and not taking climate change seriously enough.

In her messages on social media, she's praised rescue workers, expressed support for tired flood victims and called on the German state to do all it can to rebuild.

“This is a national task and together we will achieve it,” she said on Twitter.

Her chances of turning the disaster to her advantage got an unexpected boost from her chief opponent and Merkel's likely successor, a longtime 60-year-old politician called Armin Laschet.

Armin Laschet, governor of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the top candidate of the German Christian Democrats for the upcoming federal elections, laughs in Erftstadt, Germany, on Saturday while German President Steinmeier gives a press statement on the floods. (Marius Becker/dpa via AP, Pool)

Laschet happens to be the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state and one that was hit hard by the floods. Laschet was the first national politician on the scene of the disaster on Thursday and seemed to be handling events well.

But Laschet's image as a caring and serious politician was badly hurt when he was seen on national television laughing and bantering with other politicians in the background as a grave-faced German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier talked on TV cameras about the loss suffered by so many. It was a jarring mistake by Laschet, who was forced to apologize. Laschet is known as a jolly politician whose chief attribute may be his ability to build consensus and friendships.

This disaster had already put Laschet on the defensive due to his reluctance in the past to make climate change an overarching urgent problem. He is a pro-business politician and now the leader of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, which tends to support the needs of industry.

He is a champion of the nearly completed, but highly controversial, Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea from Russia; he passed legislation in North Rhine-Westphalia to stop wind turbines from being built close to homes; and he's a supporter of the coal industry, which is important in his region.

The election in Germany will have major repercussions not just for Germany but also for the rest of Europe. Merkel is seen as the steady hand for the European Union and her departure from the chancellery will mark a big change.

After the September election, the next German government will almost certainly be a coalition of parties of some combination.

Laschet's conservatives could get enough votes to continue their current coalition with the Social Democrats; or they could be forced to govern with the Greens. Another possibility is that the Greens and the Social Democrats might get enough votes to form their own left-wing coalition.

Dozens of caravans, cars and mobile homes that were swept away by the flood wave hang squeezed together on a bridge over the River Ahr, in Altenahr, western Germany, Sunday. (Boris Roessler/dpa via AP)

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union
Follow him on Twitter 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...