Berlin (AFP) -
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 170 in Germany, and 201 in total in Europe, the right-left 'grand coalition' government unblocked 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 railways.
'We will rebuild -- rebuild businesses, rebuild factories, rebuild buildings.'
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,' Merkel told reporters after touring what the Bild daily called the 'apocalyptic' wreckage of the 17,000-strong community in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) state.
She 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'.
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.
- 'Months if not years' -
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 called for the rescue funds to reach victims 'unbureaucratically and as fast as possible', pledging to double Berlin's assistance with a cash injection from his own state budget.
He 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 121 people are now confirmed to have died in the flooding in Rhineland-Palatinate state, with at least 48 victims in NRW and one in Bavaria.
At least 31 people also died in Belgium, with 53 people still missing. Later torrential rain caused havoc in southern Germany and several other neighbouring countries.
'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.'
- Climate warning -
Annalena Baerbock, the Greens' flag bearer for the election, called for a more coordinated approach to warning citizens while stressing the country must prepare better for extreme weather events 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.'
Merkel, who is retiring this year after 16 years in power, on Tuesday defended Germany's preparations for deadly disasters, saying even experts had been taken by surprise by the sheer brutal force and speed of last week's rains, which left many stricken towns looking like war zones.
'Now we've got to look at what worked and what didn't work, without forgetting that this was flooding as we haven't seen in a long, long time,' she said.