Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet approved a huge emergency aid package Wednesday for flood-stricken regions of Germany and said billions would be needed to rebuild homes, businesses and vital infrastructure.
A week into the region’s worst flooding disaster in living memory, which has killed at least 174 in Germany and 32 more Belgium, the right-left “grand coalition” government unlocked some 400 million euros ($470 million) in immediate relief.
Half will come from the federal government of Europe’s top economy and the rest from the 16 regional states, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said.
“We will make sure that life can go on,” Scholz told reporters in Berlin.
He said the coming months would bring a “billions-strong reconstruction programme to clear the devastation and restore infrastructure” including roads, bridges and railway lines.
“We will rebuild — rebuild businesses, rebuild factories, rebuild buildings,” he said. The government said it would apply for assistance from an EU “solidarity fund” set aside for natural catastrophes.
The damage caused by the floods is likely to cost the insurance sector up to five billion euros ($5.9 billion), the GDV industry association said, calling the disaster “one of the most devastating storms in recent history”.
However, the real cost is likely to be much higher as less than half of Germans in the affected states are insured against heavy rain and floods, the association said.
Power and drinking water supplies were compromised in many areas while mobile communication networks were still down.
Hubert Pauly, head of the vintners’ association in the Ahr Valley, told business magazine WirtschaftsWoche that bottles and barrels of red wine valued at some 50 million euros had been lost.
On Wednesday, the regional government in Belgium’s hard-hit Wallonia pledged a total of two billion euros in reconstruction aid after what it called “unprecedented” destruction from the floods.
Victims ‘left with nothing’
Merkel had vowed on a visit to the badly hit medieval town of Bad Muenstereifel on Tuesday that Berlin would come through to help in the short and long term.
“This was flooding that surpassed our imagination when you see the destruction it wrought,” the chancellor told reporters in the 17,000-strong community in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) state.
Merkel, who is retiring this year after 16 years in power, said her government would do everything in its power “so that the money is with people fast”.
“I hope it will be a matter of days,” she said, noting that she had met local victims “left with nothing but the clothes on their backs”.
Merkel was joined on the visit by NRW premier Armin Laschet, head of her Christian Democratic Union and the frontrunner in the race to succeed her as chancellor after a general election on September 26.
Laschet pledged to double Berlin’s assistance with a cash injection from his own state budget and warned it could take “months if not years to rebuild”.
Scholz, the chancellor candidate for the Social Democrats, said Germany would have to prepare for increasingly frequent natural disasters triggered by climate change.
A total of 125 people are now confirmed to have died in the flooding in Rhineland-Palatinate state, with at least 48 fatalities in NRW and one in Bavaria.
“We are still looking for missing people as we clear roads and pump out cellars,” the vice president of Germany’s THW civil protection agency, Sabine Lackner, told media group Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.
“However, by now, it is unfortunately very likely that we will only be able to recover victims, not rescue them.”
Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ flag bearer for the election, said the country must prepare better for more disasters due to global warming.
“Germany has been fortunate for decades in suffering relatively few natural catastrophes,” she told Der Spiegel magazine.
“But that’s meant that the disaster protection measures haven’t been sufficiently developed, although experts have been warning for years about climate-driven extreme weather events.”