BERLIN (AP) — Warning that disaster prevention must be improved, Germany and Belgium on Thursday commemorated the deadly floods that hit a year ago with high-profile memorials to pay tribute to the more than 230 people who lost their lives in those countries.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeiner visited the Ahr valley, where at least 134 people died when heavy rain turned streams into raging torrents that swept away houses, roads and bridges.
The wine-growing region south of Cologne was hardest hit by the floods. Reconstruction work is still going on and scars of the devastation are clearly visible.
“We are going to need strength for a very long time yet,” the head of the local government, Cornelia Weigand, said at a memorial event attended by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “That goes for the sorrow, which won’t leave us so quickly. It also goes with regard to the future.”
At the memorial in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, the main town in Germany’s Ahr valley, the crowd held a minute of silence for the flood victims as church bells pealed and the victims’ first names were projected on a screen.
Mayor Guido Orthen acknowledged the lingering frustration in the region, although he said “people’s solidarity was and is indescribable” and the area was grateful for the “unique” support from a government rebuilding fund.
“Many of us are simply tired, spent. Also disappointed that rebuilding at home, in their own house, but also the rebuilding of public infrastructure, is in some cases only progressing slowly,” he said.
Experts say such disasters will become more frequent due to climate change.
“We have to prepare better for such major incidents,” said Hendrik Wuest, the governor of Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia state, where 49 people died. “Protecting the climate and preserving creation are the greatest tasks of our time. Adapting to the already existing consequences of climate change is part of that too.”
In Belgium, where 39 people died in the floods, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said “we cannot just sit and wait for the next flooding, the next heat wave or drought that will claim lives.” He insisted nations needed to build on the U.N. climate agreements reached in Glasgow last year.
“We have to put climate protection at the heart of our security strategy,” De Croo said.
Edith Stoffels, who has lived in the German village of Gemuend near the border with Belgium for 50 years, put it more bluntly, calling the 2021 floods “a nightmare.”
“When we looked out the attic window upstairs in the morning … it was like a lake here,” she recalled.
“Garden shed, cars, everything was gone,” Stoffels said. “It’s unimaginable.”
For weeks after the disaster, the exact death toll was unclear. Some of the bodies recovered from the debris were later found to have died before the floods. Two other people are still missing. German authorities say at least two people took their lives after the devastation. In addition, more flooding deaths were also reported days later in Austria and Italy.
Across the border in eastern Belgium, King Philippe and Queen Mathilde traveled to a series of remembrance events Thursday that included meeting with survivors and families and friends of people who died when the sudden floods hit several Ardennes villages.
The main ceremony was in Chenee, an area of Liege where the royals were joined by De Croo and other leading politicians. But in neighborhoods along the Ourthe and Vesdre rivers, which swelled to record levels last year, residents planned more intimate events to mark the loss of their way of life.
Like in Germany, many families in Belgium have yet to recover from the devastation, either because their homes remain in disrepair or they had to move elsewhere because their houses were destroyed.
Casert reported from Brussels. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.
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