BERLIN – Chancellor Angela Merkel met survivors on Sunday and thanked volunteers as she passed through a village devastated by the extraordinary floods that killed at least 183 people in Germany and Belgium, calling the level of destruction “surreal and disturbing â.
As rescue teams continued to search for casualties amid wreckage and debris, heavy rains in the region of Bavaria in southern Germany caused even more flooding on Sunday. Authorities said they expected the death toll to rise as several hundred people remained unaccounted for, although it was not clear how many were simply inaccessible to friends or family in the middle. from the chaos of calamity and lost communications.
Helicopters buzzed overhead as Ms Merkel arrived in Schuld, a quaint former village of half-timbered houses and cobbled streets on the banks of the River Ahr, rendered an unrecognizable tangle of debris covered in sticky brown mud by the gushing waters last week. German meteorologists have called the floods the worst in 500 years, if not a millennium.
“The German language has no words, I think, for devastation,” Merkel told reporters after visiting the village. She promised that her government would organize aid, immediately and in the medium term, as well as aid for the reconstruction of infrastructure.
“Germany is a strong land and has the means to respond to it,” the Chancellor said, vowing to return at the end of August to see firsthand what might be needed once the first debris is cleared away. âWe are by your side. The federal and state governments will work together, hand in hand to restore the world to this beautiful region. “
After a brief visit, the Chancellor sat down to speak with local firefighters and soldiers who led the effort to clean up debris, restore communications and provide potable water. Ms Merkel asked how the workers were doing – shouting several questions to be heard above the hum of helicopters passing overhead.
âThank you,â she said, getting up to leave, adding, âDo you want me to know anything else, since I’m here? “
“We really hope you will support us,” replied one of the men, who had explained how damage to a team member’s house had made it unliveable, while another had lost entirely. hers.
The appearance was Merkel’s first since the disaster began, and everyone she met seemed delighted she was there. The Chancellor, known for her deliberate and cautious approach to dealing with issues, was in Washington when the worst flooding hit Thursday. She held videoconferences with leaders of the worst-affected regions after her return on Friday. Saturday was his 67th birthday.
Despite her relative absence, Merkel has been shielded from public criticism by the sudden timing of the flooding, the significance of her trip to Washington – seen as an important step in reestablishing ties with the United States after the tumultuous Trump administration – his formidable stature well into his fourth term as Chancellor, and now his status as a lame duck.
Instead, most of the German news media focused on how the candidates to replace her in the September election reacted to the tragedy. The three main candidates of the race visited the disaster areas last week.
Yet after 16 years of guiding Europe’s largest and most powerful country through calamity after calamity – including the global economic downturn in 2008, the European debt crisis that followed, the arrival of over a million migrants six years ago and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic – Germans have become accustomed to its approach of analyzing and contemplating a situation before deciding to act.
Floods in Western Europe
Ms Merkel’s Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said the government was working to organize several hundred million euros, or dollars, in immediate relief for those who lost their homes and livelihoods in the floods.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited the town of Erftstadt on Saturday, where raging waters washed away several houses and triggered a landslide; at least 16 residents remain missing there. He was accompanied by Armin Laschet, 60, head of the Conservative Christian Democratic Union and main candidate for chancellery, who is the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
The political perils of the tragedy were once again revealed on Saturday. As Mr Steinmeier made a solemn declaration to the media, calling for solidarity with the victims of the devastation, Mr Laschet was filmed standing behind him, laughing and chatting with people nearby. Mr. Laschet’s rivals were quick to criticize him.
Social Democrats General Secretary Lars Klingbeil described Laschet’s behavior as “decent and appalling” in a commentary to the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “They say the character of people shows itself in times of crisis,” he added.
The Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellery is Mr Scholz, 63, the finance minister, who has just voted in third position, behind the Greens, whose candidate Annalena Baerbock, 40, traveled to the Rhineland- Palatinate last week, and M. Laschet’s curator celebrates.
It was not clear whether the blunder would damage Mr Laschet’s lead, but the governor sought to explain himself in a Twitter post on Saturday.
âThe fate of those affected, whom we have heard about in many conversations, is important to us,â he wrote, and thanked Mr. Steinmeier for his visit. âSo I regret all the more the impression that emerged from a conversation situation. It was inappropriate and I’m sorry.
Even as the country struggled to come to terms with the extent of damage to the states of Rhineland-Palatinate, where Schuld is located, heavy rains caused more flooding in eastern and southern Germany, killing at least one person, in addition to the 112 people declared dead in Rhineland-Palatinate.
North Rhine-Westphalia, where the Home Secretary said 45 people had died, other storms ravaged the south of the country.
Floods in Belgium have left at least 27 dead, according to local media, authorities said. Dozens of people remain missing there and rescuers spent much of the day going door to door looking for those who were unable to escape the rising waters in time.