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Death Toll Continues To Rise In Devastating German Floods

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

At least 117 people have died after severe floods devastated parts of western Germany and Belgium. Authorities have not been able to get in touch with hundreds more because mobile phone networks have collapsed in flooded areas of Germany. That also means families can't track their loved ones. The rising death toll marks Germany's largest mass loss of life in years. Esme Nicholson reports from Berlin.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Climate change has arrived in Germany. These are the words of Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze sent in a tweet in response to news footage showing destruction and desperate families perching on rooftops. Firefighters in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia say the situation remains chaotic and that electricity and cell phone networks are down. South of Cologne, Police Officer Patrick Reichelt told public broadcaster ARD that the rescue services are struggling to keep up.

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PATRICK REICHELT: (Through interpreter) The current of the water running past the elementary school is too strong for our motorboats. We just managed to get the kids out, but that was the last trip we'll be making over that way today.

NICHOLSON: An entire district of the ancient city of Trier was evacuated on Thursday, including a hospital and its patients, some of whom were just out of surgery. And some of the worst damage has occurred in the wine region of Ahrweiler, where entire villages have been cut off by torrents of floodwater. In the town of Schuld, houses collapsed, and dozens of people are unaccounted for. Expressing distress at the news, Chancellor Angela Merkel said, quote, "Heavy rain and flooding doesn't quite capture what has happened," referring to it instead as a catastrophe.

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CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through interpreter) I'm grieving for those who've lost their lives in this disaster. We don't know the death toll yet, but it's going to be high. Some died in their basements, some as firefighters trying to bring others to safety. And my deepest sympathy goes out to their families.

NICHOLSON: Merkel was speaking from Washington, where on her last trip as chancellor, she met President Biden. Among other issues, they spoke about climate change, an issue now at the forefront of Germany's election campaign ahead of the September vote. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.