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Germany comes to grips with massive flood damage as some regions brace for more rains

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on July 18 visits the village of Schuld in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, where entire homes were swept away last week by the swollen Ahr river, a tributary of the Rhine. (Christof Stache/AP)
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ALTENAHR, Germany — Devastating floods spread farther south in Europe into the Alps on Sunday, inundating towns and villages in Austria and southern Germany as the death toll rose to at least 188.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured areas of the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate where riverside communities were turned into disaster zones last week after a ­once-in-a-century summer rainfall. She described the scene as "haunting."

"The German language hardly knows words for the devastation that has been wrought," she said in front of the town hall in Adenau, in Germany's Eifel district, one of the areas hit hardest. She promised financial aid to get the affected regions back on their feet.

"Fortunately, Germany is a country that can cope with this financially," she said. "We will resist this force of nature."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on July 15 expressed her condolences for the victims of flooding across Western Europe. (Video: The Washington Post)

But the scale of the destruction is mammoth. The force of the water ripped facades off houses, left cars hanging in trees and crumpled roads and bridges. Rivers are clogged with twisted railway bridges, cars and caravans, and many areas remain without power or water.

Merkel also visited the village of Schuld, a picturesque village dotted with traditional timber-frame houses, some of which were completely swept away. From the bridge that overlooks the town, nothing but ghostly outlines of the foundations of several buildings can be seen.

Merkel walked stone-faced through the destruction hand-in-hand with Malu Dreyer, the state's minister-president.

As Merkel toured the detritus, other areas were battling new floods. On Saturday night, areas of Bavaria were declared disaster zones as the southern state on the border with Austria was hit by flash floods. At least one person died in the Berchtesgadener district.

In a German town torn asunder by flood, ‘surreal’ limbo between disaster and recovery

In Austria, floodwaters swept through the town of Hallein, near the city of Salzburg, with ferocious brown swirling waters picking up cars and debris, but no fatalities had been reported as of Sunday evening.

"Heavy rains and storms are unfortunately causing severe damage in many places in Austria," Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wrote on Twitter. He thanked emergency workers, adding, "We will not leave those affected alone and support them in rebuilding."

Residents were told to stay out of basements. Some areas of Germany's Saxon Switzerland, a hilly national park around the river Elbe, were cut off by the flooding, German public television broadcaster ZDF reported.

In Germany, the floods arrived in the lead-up to elections in September, with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union Party vying with the Greens in the polls. Merkel said the government in the long term would "focus policymaking more on climate protection than we have in recent years."

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told Germany's Bild am Sonntag newspaper that he would submit a plan for at least 300 million euros in emergency aid to the cabinet this week. "There is huge damage and that much is clear: Those who lost their businesses, their houses, cannot stem the losses."

The floods have hampered small businesses in resort towns that were already reeling from closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But far from being able to rebuild, many areas are still trying to count their dead. Police say at least 110 people have died in Rhineland-Palatinate but warn that rescue operations continue and that they can't give a figure on the number of those still missing. Another 46 were killed in neighboring North Rhine-Westphalia. At least 31 have died in Belgium.

In Altenahr, a village on the Ahr river that dramatically burst its banks last week, mud and debris were still being cleared from streets by bands of volunteers and army personnel. Buildings deemed too dangerous to stand were ripped down with bulldozers.

And thousands remain homeless or displaced, with dams considered to be at risk of breaching.

The death toll in Germany is expected to rise as rescue workers pick their way through flooded homes checking for bodies. Teams with sniffer dogs have been sweeping mounds of debris clogging streets.

German military personnel and fire crews were still working to winch cars and trucks off a submerged highway on Sunday. Rescue workers said they did not know if people had enough time to get out of their cars before the floodwaters rose.

Thousands had to be rescued from rooftops. Williams Horst, 71, was trapped overnight Wednesday with his 86-year-old landlady and her caregiver.

"The street was like a running creek," he said. They were all helicoptered out in harnesses, picked from the backyard of the house in water up to their chests.

Gabriel Rinaldi in Berlin and Paul Schemm in London contributed to this report.

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