It took just minutes for residents of a prosperous corner of one of the world’s richest countries to be reduced to helplessness, fending for themselves as flood waters roared into the town of Schuld, wrecking homes and everything else they relied on.
In parts of western Germany, more than 150 liters of rainwater per square meter fell over 24 hours, causing ordinarily placid rivers in idyllic wine-producing valleys to swell and burst their banks.
The freak floods tore down houses, overwhelmed plumbing and sewage, severed electricity links, cut off mobile phone signals and left residents accustomed to the luxury of an advanced, fully-functioning state agonizing over their friends and neighbors.
“It was terrible not to able to help people,” said Frank Thel. “They were waving at us from windows. Houses were collapsing to the left and right of them and in the house between they were waving. We were lucky, we survived.”
The region, south of Bonn, an ancient university city that was for 40 years the capital of West Germany, is famed for its wine and the beauty of its sloping vineyards. Now residents are fending for themselves following the deluge, Thel said.
Though emergency services and the army have deployed to the region, they have yet to make much of a dent on the devastation. “The clean-up as far as I can see is neighbors and farmers using their tractors.”
Germany’s 2002 floods, in which 21 died and which were billed by media as “once-in-a-century,” have now easily been outdone.
Over 100 are known to have died in Germany, and over 1,000 are still missing, partly because the mobile phone networks have collapsed in much of the region.
Regional broadcaster WDR faced criticism on Wednesday night for struggling to inform the world about the brewing disaster. The mockery stopped when they explained why: their own studio in the region had been flooded.
The shock was easy to read in the faces of residents who could not believe how swiftly things had deteriorated.
As the waters rose on Wednesday, Michael Lang, a wine merchant in the region took to Facebook to warn friends of the imminent floods.
“I’m going to evacuate now. Take care of yourselves,” he said, with the roaring Ahl river in the background, still composed despite the worry etched on his face.
On Friday, standing above his wrecked village, that composure was gone. “The whole infrastructure has gone,” he said, choking back tears. “Our house is still standing, but nothing else.”
(Writing by Thomas Escritt; editing by Philippa Fletcher)