A tropical storm which was locked over northern central Europe over the past week dumped as much as two months’ rainfall in some places in a single day. The resulting floods have left over 120 dead found so far, with more than a thousand missing, and extensive destruction to buildings, roads, and dams.
An aerial view of just one of the many regions destroyed by the floods in Germany this week. Photo: German Consuate LA, via Twitter
The cause of the floods was a low-pressure storm system named Bernd which had brought large quantities of humid Mediterranean tropical air over Europe this week.
A map showing the total rainfall throughout Europe during the 7 days from 9-15 July 2021. Photo: NOAA
That storm would have been serious enough on its own, swept into place by strong superheated wind currents driven by higher-than-normal open water temperatures. As the low-pressure field moved in, it was locked in place by high pressure fields on either side of it. That allowed for the storm to intensify further and dump what Deutscher Wetterdienst, Germany meteorological agency, called a 1-in-100 year deluge.
A map showing the total rainfall in millimeters which fell from 12-15 July 2021 in multiple locations in Germany as a result of the current storms. Photo: Deutscher Wetterdienst, the Germany Meteorological Agency
Between July 13 and 15, the storm brought Germany 5 to 7 inches (127 -178 millimeters) of rain, with much of that pouring through just from Wednesday night through Thursday morning. In other areas:
Cologne experienced 6 inches (152 mm) of rain between the afternoon of July 14 and the morning of July 15.
Reifferscheid was drenched in 8.1 inches (206 mm) of rain in just 9 hours this week.
Düsseldorf received 5.6 inches (142 mm) over the two-day period starting the morning of July 13.
The impact of the sudden rains in Germany alone was devastating. At least 63 of the 120 known deaths from the rains happened when the Ahr river broke through its retaining banks in Rhineland-Palatinate. 43 are known dead from flash floods in Rhine-Westphalia. Others were likely killed when they went missing after a sudden landslide in Blessem, near Cologne. Houses there collapsed or were swept away completely in the surging waters. A sinkhole in Erftstadt just southwest of the city appeared to be the immediate cause of what happened there.
German authorities are still looking for as many as 1,300 who are still missing after the tragedy. They are also moving quickly to restore power to some 114,000 homes as well.
In Belgium, another place where record rains were recorded, flash floods destroyed homes, streets, and city buildings in multiple regions. Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden said yesterday that at least 20 people were dead in the country with more than that still missing. The majority of those who died in the country were killed in Liège, a city with a population of 200,000. Sadly, many of those deaths might have been avoidable, as an order had been given to evacuate regions nearby the Meuse River before it crested in the floods, but many simply ignored the directive.
The resort city of Spa is also in serious trouble. It was flooded out Wednesday and is currently still near completely under water. As with other towns with severe flooding there, those forced to flee their homes are now huddling in tents.
Minister Verlinden warned that even though the rains may have passed, more damage may be coming within Belgium.
“There are a number of dikes on the Meuse where it is really touch and go whether they will collapse,” she said.
To protect the country further, the Belgian army, along with emergency crews brought in from France and Italy, are deploying into 10 provinces to shore up the dikes and assist with rescue operations.
Belgium has declared this coming Tuesday will be a day of national mourning from what happened.
While Belgium and Germany took the brunt of the storm’s force, portions of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands also suffered badly in the rains.
In the southern region of the Netherlands, Maastricht residents were ordered evacuated during the peak of the rains. In the Dutch city of Roermond, 550 houses were ordered emptied as waters rose quickly. In Venlo some 200 hospital patients had to be moved due to flooding risks from the nearby river.
Flash floods also roared through Beggingen and Schleitheim, Swiss villages whose entire landscape was shattered in the process.
Part of the reason for so many dead in Germany was that the flood warnings, which should have arrived in time to drive evacuations, went unheeded by local officials as the rains built to their peak. In an interview after what happened, hydrologist Hannah Cloke told reporters what happened was “a monumental failure of the system.”
For most, the clear cause of what happened is the climate crisis, which this time manifested in bringing the waterlogged storm from the Mediterranean Sea into Central Europe, and in the positioning of intense high-pressure regions surrounding it. This storm, which appeared seemingly out of nowhere, has many in Europe now worried extreme weather events related to global heating are likely to intensify faster than climate scientists had so far predicted.
Armin Laschet, a conservative governor of North Rhine-Westphalia who is running for Chancellor of Germany after Angela Merkel retires, is calling an emergency cabinet meeting to address what to do about the current crisis.
“It is a reality that extreme weather events will influence our everyday life more strongly in the future,” Laschet said to reporters. “We have to continue down Germany’s path towards climate neutrality at a faster pace.”
Rhineland-Palatinate Governor Malu Dreyer was pointed about what was really happening.
Climate change is “not abstract anymore,” Dreyer said. “We are experiencing it up close and painfully.”
Current German Chancellor Merkel, who was in Washington, D.C. for talks this week with Joe Biden, pledged her government would not stand by and leave those impacted by the floods “alone with their suffering.”
Merkel was moving to prepare for even worse discoveries in her country as the storm waters receded.
“I fear that we will only see the full extent of the disaster in the coming days,” she said.