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Merkel pledges aid, climate action after floods leave at least 190 dead

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By Euronews with AP, AFP
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Angela Merkel and the Governor of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer are seen on a bridge in Schuld, Germany, Sunday, July 18, 2021.
Angela Merkel and the Governor of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer are seen on a bridge in Schuld, Germany, Sunday, July 18, 2021.   -   Copyright  Christof Stache/Pool Photo via AP
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel was visiting flood-ravaged areas in the country on Sunday as the death toll in Western Europe climbed to at least 190.

"It is a surreal and ghostly situation, I would almost say that the German language is struggling to find the words to describe the devastation that has been caused," Merkel told reporters after assessing damage in one of the affected towns.

She promised that "the federal government and the regions will act together to gradually restore order" in the devastated areas.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said an emergency package of at least €300 million would be tabled at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, ahead of a vast reconstruction program of several billion.

Merkel furthermore vowed to redouble political focus on curbing climate change, which many have blamed for the disaster.

“Germany is a strong country and we will stand up to this force of nature in the short term — but also in the medium and long term, through policy that pays more regard to nature and the climate than we did in recent years. That will be necessary too,” she said.

Germany has borne the brunt of the extreme weather with at least 159 people killed, mainly in Rhineland-Palatinate state and neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia.

In Belgium, the death toll rose to 31 casualties on Sunday. 163 citizens were still missing, the country's crisis centre said.

Austria, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland have also been hit by flooding, the worst Europe has seen in living memory.

Clean-up underway

As waters subsided after devastating floods in Germany and Belgium, a huge clean-up was underway on Sunday.

The storms destroyed roads and bridges and reduced houses to rubble and mud.

Heavy rain and flooding continued on Saturday in other parts of Europe, but in Germany the waters receded to leave businesses and livelihoods destroyed.

The village of Wassenberg flooded when the nearby dam overflowed, leaving many inhabitants in shock.

"What can we do? Everything is broken," said one man summing up the situation.

On the outskirts of Erftstadt in North Rhine-Westphalia, highway 265 looked more like a river than a road on Saturday.

The German armed forces were busy recovering vehicles trapped by the floodwaters.

Michael Probst/AP
German army soldiers check for victims in flooded cars on a road in Erftstadt, Germany, Saturday, July 17, 2021.Michael Probst/AP

Military units also arrived in other towns and villages to help with the clean-up efforts.

The number of missing people continues to fall as they are located, but the death toll is expected to rise as rescue operations continue.

Leaders pledge long-term support

Merkel's visit came after Germany's president Frank-Walter Steinmeier went to the area on Saturday and made clear that it will need long-term support.

“A lot of people have lost everything they spent their lives building up — their possessions, their home, the roof over their heads,” Steinmeier said.

“It may only be possible to clear up in weeks how much damage needs to be compensated,” he said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Belgium's most affected regions on Saturday and assured the residents of the European Union's support.

"My heart sank when I met people who lost their homes and the savings of a lifetime. I told them: Europe is with you. We share your grief. We will help you rebuild," von der Leyen tweeted.

Political undertones as German election looms

As Germany is headed to a general election in September, the disaster has taken a political turn.

Candidates were vying to make the most ambitious proposals to tackle climate change, which many experts have blamed for the floods.

Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state and frontrunner to succeed to Merkel in Germany's September election, became embroiled in a controversy after he was seen laughing in the background as Steinmeier delivered a statement on the floods.

"Laschet laughs while the country cries," wrote Bild newspaper.

Laschet has since apologised on Twitter for an "inappropriate" scene.