Rescue workers are scrambling to find survivors and victims of the devastation wreaked by the worst floods to hit western Europe in living memory, which has left at least 170 people dead and dozens more missing.
Western Germany has suffered the most brutal impact of the deluge that also pummelled Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, leaving streets and homes submerged in muddy water and isolating entire communities.
With the death toll in Germany at 143 on the fourth day of the disaster, authorities said more bodies were likely to be found in flooded cellars and collapsed homes. Around 22,000 rescuers have been mobilized.
In Germany’s worst-hit states of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and Rhineland-Palatinate, residents gradually returned to their homes and scenes of desolation.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to visit the hard-hit town of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate on Sunday.
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier surveyed the damage in Erftstadt in NRW on Saturday, where a landslide was triggered by the floods.
“We are mourning with all those who lost friends, acquaintances, or family members,” he said.
But the visit ended on a controversial note, with NRW premier and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet caught on camera laughing in the background with a group of people during Steinmeier’s statement.
“Laschet laughs while the country cries,” wrote the top-selling Bild daily.
Mr. Laschet later apologized on Twitter.
Elsewhere in the town, soldiers were wading waist-deep in muddy water as they attempted to clear the streets and search for victims among the rubble from buildings, collapsed bridges, and half-submerged cars.
At least 98 of Germany’s victims lived in the Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate, police said in an updated toll, including 12 residents of a home for the disabled who drowned in the rising waters.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, I was born here, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Gregor Degen, who runs a bakery in the devastated spa town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler.