“I’ve never seen anything like it, the velocity, it was insane. Within seconds, tree trunks were floating down the street,” Frank Poschmann, in his 60s, who lives in the small riverside town outside the city of Hagen in western Germany, said.
Mr Poschmann watched as his cellar was flooded in seconds. In less than a minute, the waters had reached the first storey of his home. “If it had got any higher, it would’ve covered the house.”
He evacuated to his son’s house before returning yesterday to inspect the damage. “My books are ruined and so are a lot of the photos and possessions of my mother, who died recently,” Mr Poschmann said.
“But my family is here and we didn’t lose anyone. You see the news and some towns have lost 50 people. We can really be glad.” He was not sure if he had insurance. “I’ve got no idea, I’m not good with paperwork,” he said.
As he went through his belongings, neighbours removed damaged appliances and filled wheelbarrows full of stones and dirt from his cellar.
“What shocks me is the humanity,” he said, gesturing at the volunteers. “Most of these people I’ve never seen before, but they just came along and started cleaning everything up.”
Hohenlimburg is one of hundreds of towns, villages and communities in western Europe that lie in ruins today after freak floods swept the region, killing at least 126 people in Germany and Belgium and leaving hundreds more unaccounted for.
The death toll in Germany was 106 last night, with that figure expected to rise after heavy rains caused swollen rivers to burst their banks in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate.
The authorities said more than 1,000 people were listed as missing, but cautioned that there could be duplicate reports and difficulties reaching people.
Germany’s 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,” Mr Steinmeier said.
On Thursday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said from Washington: “I fear that we will only see the full extent of the disaster in the coming days.”
The torrents of water were called the “flood of death” by
, the top-selling daily newspaper.
About 1,000 soldiers were deployed to help with rescue operations and rubble-clearing, and France and Switzerland also sent help.
Among more than 60 casualties in Rhineland-Palatinate, a region known for its wine, were 12 residents of an assisted living facility for people with disabilities in the town of Sinzig.
The victims, who lived in the home and suffered from “severe disabilities” according to German media, were trapped when the Ahr river broke its banks and quickly engulfed the town overnight on Thursday.
The nightwatchman overseeing the Sinzig facility rushed residents onto the top floor. But it was too late for 13 of them, who were declared missing. Just one was found alive.
In Schuld, the floods tore down houses, overwhelmed plumbing and sewage, severed electricity lines and cut off mobile phone signal.
“It was terrible not to be able to help people,” Frank Thel, a resident, said. “They were waving at us from windows. Houses were collapsing to the left and right of them. We were lucky, we survived.”
The emergency services and the army have yet to make much of a dent on the devastation. “The clean-up as far as I can see is neighbours and farmers using their tractors,” Mr Thel said.
In neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia, the toll was at least 43.
Rescuers rushed to help people trapped in their homes yesterday in the town of Erftstadt, south-west of Cologne, after a massive landslide caused a sinkhole to open up.
Another 24 were confirmed to have died in the town of Euskirchen. Its centre had been reduced to rubble, with facades torn off by the rushing floods.
Armin Laschet, the state governor, said the floods had “literally pulled the ground from beneath many people’s feet. They lost their houses, farms or businesses.”
In Belgium, at least 20 people were confirmed dead, with 20 believed to be missing, the interior ministry said.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo declared a national day of mourning on Tuesday. “This could be the most catastrophic flooding our country has ever seen,” he said.
Most of the flooding was in towns on or near the River Meuse. Waters began to recede yesterday as torrential rains ceased, but thousands of emergency responders were still at work.
In Liege, the fourth-biggest city, the river was full of car tyres, street signs and other debris.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Pierre Fouillen (81) said. “It’s certainly associated with climate change, but it feels a little bit too late to be fighting it. We should have started taking action more than 10 years ago.”
The rains caused significant damage and disruption to other parts of western Europe, including the Netherlands, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared a national disaster in the southern province of Limburg, between badly flooded areas in western Germany and Belgium.
Some parts of Europe received up to two months of rainfall in two days
, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.
(© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021)