devastation from the floods came from all around Western Europe as the death toll passed 125 on Friday, with another 1,300 people still missing. Roads buckled and washed away. Cars piled atop one another. Houses were inundated to the roof tiles. Frightened residents were being evacuated in the shovels of earth movers.
But nowhere was affected more than Germany, where hundreds were still unaccounted for and the death toll had reached 106 and was expected to rise as rescue workers combed through the debris. At least 20 were reported dead in Belgium.
A European weather agency had issued an “extreme” flood warning after detailed models showed storms that threatened to send rivers surging to levels that a German meteorologist said on Friday had not been seen in 500 or even 1,000 years.
German officials said Friday their warning system, which includes a network of sensors that measure river levels in real time, functioned as it was supposed to. The problem, they said, was an amount of rain they had never seen before — falling so rapidly that it engorged even small streams and rivers not normally considered threats.
Extreme downpours like the ones that occurred in Germany are among the most visible and damaging signs that the climate is changing as a result of warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have found that they are now occurring more frequently, and scientists point to a simple reason: A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, which creates extreme rainfall.
In Central Europe rescue efforts were hampered, with electricity and communications networks down, roads and bridges washed out, and drinking water scarce. The worst hit were thinly populated, rural areas.
In the city of Schleitheim, Switzerland, where a river burst its banks, residents recorded videos of cars being washed through the streets in a swirling flood of muddy water and debris.
Germans struggled even to grasp the scale of the calamity in their country. Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her shock and solidarity from Washington, where she was visiting the White House. Politicians of all stripes called for a truce in the German election campaign. The focus was on how to deal with a disaster that was growing by the hour, with thousands left homeless, in addition to the missing.
In Belgium, the Meuse river overflowed its banks, flooding villages and the center of Liège, leaving thousands without power. The official death toll stands at 20 dead and 20 missing, the authorities said.
“We are still waiting for the final assessment, but these floods could have been the most disastrous that our country has ever known,” Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s prime minister said on Friday.
Relatives of those missing grappled with the fear of the unknown. The authorities in the Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate said late Thursday that 1,300 people remained unaccounted for in their region, where the Ahr river swelled to an angry torrent late Wednesday, ripping through the towns and villages that hugged its banks.
One of the places in Germany hardest hit by the flooding was tiny Schuld, where the destruction arrived with remarkable speed in the once-tidy village. After the river swelled, vehicles bobbed like bath toys, six houses collapsed and half of those that remained standing had gaping holes torn by floating debris.
“It went so fast. You tried to do something, and it was already too late,” a resident of Schuld told Germany’s ARD public television.
At least 50 people were confirmed dead in the Ahrweiler district, where torrents of water rushed through towns and villages, washing away cars, homes and businesses.
In Sinzig, a town in the district, efforts to evacuate a care home for people with severe disabilities came just moments before the gushing waters swept through the lower levels, killing 12 of the residents.