VERVIERS, BELGIUM (AFP) – Belgium fell silent for a minute of remembrance Tuesday (July 20) as the country held a day of mourning for the victims of the devastating floods that left nearly 200 dead in western Europe.
Heavy rains last week sent torrents of floodwaters sweeping through towns and villages, mostly in Belgium and Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel was visiting victims in one of the hardest-hit areas.
At least 31 people were killed in Belgium alone, with dozens still missing or unaccountable, while in Germany 165 were killed and rescuers are still scouring the rubble for victims.
The number of missing in Belgium has fallen over the past two days as telephone contact is re-established and more people are traced.
The clean-up is still under way to help the regions hit hardest recover from the scenes of destruction that saw dozens of homes collapsed and cars piled on top of each other.
Waters have subsided since Friday but workers and volunteers face a mammoth task to clear away the detritus and help local residents rebuild their shattered lives.
Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde paid their respects at the fire station in Verviers, one of the hardest-hit towns.
The moment of silence took place after sirens sounded in fire stations across the country, with buses, trams and metro trains halted in Brussels.
The Belgian tricolour was flown at half-mast on official buildings, as was the star-spangled flag of the European Union around the bloc’s headquarters in the capital.
“No words can describe the suffering and destruction caused,” tweeted European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who visited the scene on Saturday.
The day of mourning comes ahead of Belgium’s national holiday on Wednesday – but events for that are set to be sombre as the country still reels from the flooding.
In neighbouring Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel began a visit to meet victims of the deluge still struggling to come to terms with the losses in the ravaged medieval town of Bad Munstereifel.
She was accompanied by Mr Armin Laschet, the regional head and pick from Dr Merkel’s CDU party to replace her as chancellor at elections in September.
The number of people missing in the country remains unclear, mainly because of disrupted communication networks.
As the scale of the flood disaster became clearer, questions mounted in Germany about whether enough was done to warn residents ahead of time.
The German government on Monday pledged to improve the country’s under-fire warning systems as a spokeswoman admitted that the tragedy had shown authorities “need to do more and better”.
Although meteorological services had forecast torrential rain and flash floods, many residents said they were caught off-guard by rapidly rising waters.
The disaster has catapulted climate change to the top of the agenda in Germany, ahead of the September polls that will mark the end of Dr Merkel’s 16 years in power.
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