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Desperate search for survivors as western Europe reels from a ‘catastrophe of historic proportion’

Altenahr, Germany (CNN)In Altenahr in western Germany, even the dead were not spared in this week’s devastating flood. The village cemetery was swept away, headstones damaged and toppled by the force of the muddy water.

Antoinnette Steinhoff stands at the edge of the flooded graveyard, crushed by the sight of destruction in front of her. “My mother is over there,” she says, pointing at a black marble grave with a cross on top.


When the flooding hit the village, the 76-year-old saw an entire house dragged away by the water. Two people were still inside, Steinhoff said “They found one of the bodies up in the vineyard,” she added.
Much of Altenahr lies in ruin now. Restaurants dotted around the river banks have been completely destroyed and entire chunks of buildings torn away. In some areas, the water mark reaches halfway through the second floor.
The streets, or what remains of them, are buried under mud, cars wedged between collapsed buildings and piles of debris.
It’s a sight seen across large swaths of western Europe following the catastrophic flooding that killed at least 160 people and left hundreds more missing or unaccounted for.
Antoinnette Steinhoff stands at the edge of the flooded graveyard in Altenahr.
Antoinnette Steinhoff stands at the edge of the flooded graveyard in Altenahr.
At least 133 people died in Germany when the floods swept across the western states of North-Rhine Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatine and Saarland. In Belgium, 27 were confirmed dead as of Saturday afternoon, with authorities warning the number could go up.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said “my heart sank”visiting Belgian towns, and she vowed to “stand by” flood victims whose homes have been destroyed.
Drinking water suppies were gradually being restored in Wallonia.
Luxembourg and the Netherlands have also been affected by the extreme rainfall, but have not reported any fatalities.
Images showed entire towns and villages underwater, cars wedged between collapsed buildings and homes buried under landslides and debris.
The desperate search for survivors continues despite rising waters, landslides and power outages. The German army deployed 850 soldiers for disaster relief.
According to the Interior Ministry, around 22,000 firefighters and aid workers are taking part in the rescue and recovery operations in North Rhine-Westphalia alone.
Residents described the chaos that ensued when the water rose, making it impossible to escape the area and trapping people in their homes.

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“The water was so high that you couldn’t go with smaller cars, they had special cars, and went in and tried to get [as] many people as possible out of that area. The whole night helicopters were coming and even tried to pull out people there,” Michael Kautsch told CNN.
Kautsch lives in Erftstadt, a town near Cologne that has become one of the symbols of the destruction. A number of buildings, including parts of a historical castle, were destroyed after a large sinkhole opened in a nearby quarry. “The water was flowing and pulled parts of the town into that hole, and now … the fire department says that there could be so much water under the buildings that a lot of buildings still can be damaged and can crash together,” Kautsch said.
European officials say ‘climate change has arrived’ as deadly floods engulf entire towns
European officials say ‘climate change has arrived’ as deadly floods engulf entire towns
Communication lines remain disrupted across the flooded areas, leaving people unable to reach loved ones.
Police in Koblenz told CNN on Saturday that while up to 1,300 people were still unaccounted for, authorities were hoping the numbers would be revised down as the rescue operation continues.
“There is no end in sight just yet,” Ulrich Sopart, a police spokesman in the city, told CNN. ”Our hopes are that some people might have been registered as missing twice or even three times — if for example a family member, a work colleague or a friend has registered a person as missing,” Sopart said.
”Also, [in] some places phone lines are still down and reception is difficult. We do hope that people will get in touch with a relative, work colleague or friend to let them know they are fine,” he said.
Villages along the river Ahr have been left without power and phone coverage, with some areas completely cut off, forcing the military and search and rescue helicopters to survey the area from the air, searching for stranded survivors.
The German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited the Rhein-Erft district of North Rhine-Westphalia state on Saturday. Seeing the destruction first hand, he said clearing and recovery “will take a long time.”
The cemetery in Altenahr was flooded on Thursday.
The cemetery in Altenahr was flooded on Thursday.
A dam along the river Rur in North Rhine-Westphalia broke Friday night, according to the regional government. Officials have started the evacuation of about 700 residents in the Ophoven neighborhood in the city of Wassenberg.
Across the border in Belgium, the Belgian army is racing against the time with search and rescue operations.
Marie-Louise Grosjean, a shop owner in Pepinster, Belgium, saw a decade of hard work swept away by water and mud on Friday, when the water entered her wine and decorations store. She said her father has lived in the town for 70 years and has never seen anything like that. Grosjean’s son Arthur told CNN the flooding game very quickly, leaving only destruction behind.
“Thankfully I don’t live there but it’s my mother’s business and there is nothing here. We hope we can quickly repair but we don’t know how,” he said, as he was helping the clear-up.
“The situation is changing by the minute, and remains extremely critical in many places,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said at a news conference on Friday. “The victims are the priority, rescuing is the priority, and care. All possible means are mobilized,” he added, announcing that Belgium will hold a national day of mourning for flood victims on Tuesday.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands, Dutch officials ordered the evacuation of 10,000 people in the municipality of Venlo, where the Maas river rose faster than expected. The high waters are expected to last until Sunday evening.
Officials fear more dams could break and are closely monitoring reservoirs in the region. On Friday, a hospital in the region with 200 patients was evacuated.
The Netherlands Red Cross is supporting flood evacuees as Venlo water levels rise.

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