Schuld (Germany) (AFP) -
Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday that she was horrified by the 'surreal' devastation in the flood-ravaged region of western Germany, as the toll in Germany and Belgium climbed to 190 with dozens of people still missing.
Wearing hiking boots and offering pandemic-safe fist bumps to rescue workers, the veteran leader walked through the village of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate state, one of the two hardest-hit regions in western Germany.
Merkel, who is retiring from politics after September's elections, listened to the accounts of residents where the swollen Ahr river swept away houses and left debris piled high in the streets.
'It is a surreal, eerie situation,' a visibly shaken Merkel told reporters, as she pledged quick aid to rebuild.
'It is shocking -- I can almost say that the German language doesn't have words for the destruction that's been wreaked.'
At least 159 people have died since Wednesday in Germany's worst flooding in living memory, police said.
Merkel was accompanied by Malu Dreyer, premier of Rhineland-Palatinate state which has recorded 112 fatalities.
As they navigated damaged roads together, the chancellor gripped the hand of Dreyer, who has multiple sclerosis, to support her.
At least 31 people have lost their lives in neighbouring Belgium. Heavy rainfall has also battered Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
In Austria, residents in the scenic town of Hallein were cleaning up the muddy aftermath after streets were submerged on Saturday.
- 'We must hurry' -
German rescue crews were sifting through rubble to find victims and survivors, often in dangerous conditions. Police deployed helicopters, speedboats and divers to search for bodies.
As the waters began to recede in Rhineland-Palatinate and neighbouring North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), concern shifted south to Germany's Upper Bavaria region, where torrential rains inundated basements and led rivers and creeks late Saturday to burst their banks.
One person died in Berchtesgadener Land, with more rain expected later Sunday.
In the eastern state of Saxony, authorities reported a 'significant risk situation' in several villages.
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz pledged more than 300 million euros ($354 million) in emergency aid for people who lost homes and businesses, with the cabinet to approve a much larger reconstruction package on Wednesday.
The disaster has increasingly taken on political overtones in Germany, which heads to the polls on September 26 for a general election that will mark the end of Merkel's 16 years in power.
With experts saying climate change is making extreme weather events more likely, Merkel said leaders 'must hurry' to battle global warming.
- Weather warning criticism -
Armin Laschet, the premier of North-Rhine Westphalia state and frontrunner in the race to succeed Merkel, has also said efforts to tackle global warming should be 'speeded up'.
But Laschet scored an own goal Saturday when he was filmed laughing in the devastated town of Erftstadt in NRW, as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was giving a statement expressing his sympathies to grieving families.
Laschet later apologised.
As the shock over the severe death toll set in, the German association of cities and towns called for 'significant reinforcements' to emergency preparedness and early warning systems.
The scale of the flood impact was gradually becoming clear, with damaged buildings being assessed, some of which will have to be demolished, and efforts under way to clear debris and restore gas, electricity and telephone services.
- Helping out -
Heinz Gies, 50, a resident of badly hit spa town Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, said he had just completed a partial renovation of his house, which is now caked in mud.
'But the neighbours are helping each other out and there are so many volunteers here bringing us water, ice cream, coffee and everything else we need,' he told AFP.
Local authorities in NRW and Rhineland-Palatinate said dozens of people remain unaccounted-for, possibly due to communication disruptions.
Across the border in Belgium, authorities said the death toll had climbed to 31. Here too, dozens of people were reported missing.
Weather conditions in Belgium's hard-hit south and east improved at the weekend, but some 37,000 households were still without electricity.
As in Germany, emergency workers urged people not to travel to flood-damaged areas to drop off clothing or food, and to donate money to aid organisations instead.