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Europe floods: Rescuers race to find survivors as hundreds remain missing

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Rescue crews have been racing to find survivors of floods that have wreaked havoc across western Europe, killing at least 170 people.

Many people are still missing after record rainfall triggered severe floods in Germany and Belgium, and the death toll is expected to rise further.

Submerged cars are being searched for bodies as floodwaters begin to recede.

But a senior German politician has been criticised for laughing during a visit to affected areas.

Armin Laschet, who is the conservative candidate to replace outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, was caught on camera apparently joking with colleagues as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was expressing sympathy to victims.

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Mr Laschet later tweeted (in German) that he regretted his behaviour, but commentators and politicians were quick to condemn him.

“Laschet laughs while the country cries,” Bild newspaper said on its website.

Mrs Merkel herself is expected to visit the region on Sunday afternoon.

European leaders have blamed climate change for the floods, which have also affected Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Experts say global warming makes torrential rainfall more likely.

The world has already warmed by about 1.2C since the industrial era began.

B265 federal highway in Erftstadt, North Rhine-Wesphalia
Rescue workers are preparing to clear submerged cars from the B265 road

At least 143 people are now known to have died in the floods in Germany, including four firefighters.

Rescue teams were hampered by difficult conditions on Friday, leaving relatives of the missing waiting anxiously for news.

But by Saturday the authorities said numbers of people unaccounted for had been steadily decreasing.

The states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland have been the worst affected by the rainfall.

And though the risk of further flooding is diminishing there is growing concern about the Steinbachtal dam in North Rhine-Westphalia, south-west of the city of Bonn.

Inspectors say large parts of the structure have come away leaving it extremely unstable, and more people may be asked to leave their homes.

Meanwhile, emergency workers have been searching abandoned cars on the still-flooded B265 road, but fire service spokesman Elmar Mettke said no bodies had yet been found.

“It seems like in the cars we have checked so far the occupants have all reached dry land unscathed. But we will continue to look and it will be a while until we are done here,” he told Reuters news agency.

Streets damaged by the flooding of the Ahr River in Ahrweiler, Germany
Torrents of water swept through villages and towns in Ahrweiler, destroying homes and upending cars

A resident of Schuld in the Rhineland-Palatinate district of Ahrweiler told AFP news agency that cars had been washed away and houses knocked down in scenes he likened to a “war zone”.

In the nearby spa town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler residents were determined to begin the huge clean-up operation, scraping mud from the streets and clearing piles of debris.

But many businesses and livelihoods in the town have been swept away. Nearly 100 people in Ahrweiler are believed to have died.

Despite the ongoing rescue efforts, people have reportedly been travelling to see the damage, leading the police in Mainz to ask people not to “tour a disaster area” where people had suffered so much loss. Similar warnings have been issued in the Netherlands, according to NOS.com.

Chronicle of a disaster foretold

Analysis box by Roger Harrabin, Environment analyst

Scientists have been predicting for years that summer rainfall and heat waves would become more intense due to human-induced climate change.

Hannah Cloke, Professor of Hydrology at the University of Reading, said: “The deaths and destruction across Europe as a result of flooding is a tragedy that should have been avoided.

“The fact that other parts of the northern hemisphere are currently suffering record-breaking heatwaves and fires should serve as a reminder of just how much more dangerous our weather could become in an ever-warmer world.”

Scientists say governments must both cut the CO2 emissions that are fuelling extreme events, and prepare for more extreme weather.

Yet in the UK – hit by severe flooding on Monday – the government’s advisory climate change committee recently told ministers the nation was even worse prepared for extreme weather than it was five years ago.

And only this week the UK government told people that they don’t need to reduce flying because technology will solve the emissions problem – a notion that most experts consider a gamble.

In Belgium, the army has been sent to four of the country’s 10 provinces to help with rescue and evacuations. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo declared 20 July a national day of mourning.

He said the floods – which have claimed at least 27 lives in Belgium – could be “the most catastrophic our country has ever seen”.

An aerial view of Valkenburg shows the flooded area around the Meuse
Floodwaters burst the banks of the River Meuse, flooding nearby areas

Rescue workers from France, Italy and Austria were sent to the city of Liege, where residents were evacuated after flash floods.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, thousands of people fled their homes in Limburg province as rising waters swamped cities and broke through a dyke.

But waters were receding in the southern city of Maastricht and nearby towns, where residents were able to return to their homes on Friday.

But waters were receding in the southern city of Maastricht and nearby towns, where residents were able to return to their homes on Friday.https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/6738015/embed?auto=1

In Switzerland, lakes and rivers were also swelling after heavy rainfall. The river running through the Swiss capital Bern burst its banks on Friday.

Lake Lucerne is flooding into the town and people in Basel have been told to keep well away from the River Rhine.

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How does climate change cause flooding?

  • Global heating causes more water to evaporate, which leads to an increase in the amount of annual rain and snow
  • At the same time, a warmer atmosphere means it can hold more moisture – which also increases the intensity of rainfall
  • Rather than gently watering plants, this intense rainfall leads to flooding, like we’re seeing in Northern Europe now
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