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Recovery Will Take Months In Flood-Devastated Germany


Germany and Belgium are beginning to recover from historic flooding that has devastated parts of those countries and left more than 180 people dead. German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured some of the affected areas today.

NPR's Rob Schmitz has spent the day in one of the hard-hit towns in Germany, and he's here with us now to tell us more of what he saw. Rob, thanks so much for being here.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Could you just start by telling us where you are?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I visited today the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler. It's a winegrowing region southwest of Bonn.

MARTIN: And it's been a few days since the floods hit that town. What does it look like there today?

SCHMITZ: Well, the bones of the town are intact. You know, you see houses, churches, playgrounds. But, you know, in between all of that, it sort of resembles a muddy landfill - waterlogged, destroyed cars, uprooted trees - all of it stuck in this thick, brown mud.

MARTIN: And in addition to all that physical destruction, you know, obviously, there's a terrible human toll as well, right?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, it's - it is terrible. Dozens of people in the town I visited today died in the flooding. And there are still many people unaccounted for. I spoke with resident Claudia Krah, whose family was cleaning out the mud and destroyed furniture from their home. A tiny creek called the Ahr runs through the town, about a football field away from Krah's home. She told me it's usually less than a foot deep and that she often walks across it barefoot to get to the other side of town. But on Wednesday night, it rained so hard that this creek - just inches deep - grew within an hour or so to around 25 feet deep. And it flooded much of the town, carrying trees, cars and debris with it and reaching the second story of her house. And here's what she told me.

CLAUDIA KRAH: It was so fast that you can't go outside because then you got hit from a wave. And then you were gone. It's so truly sad because we Ahrweiler people love our hometown. And it's gone. It's gone. Historical buildings, no restaurant, no businesses running - it's over.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, Rob, we mentioned that Chancellor Merkel visited some of the flooded areas today. What did she have to say?

SCHMITZ: Well, she reminded everyone that this is Germany's worst natural disaster in 60 years. She had a chance today to survey the damage in the river valley where I was reporting today. And it seemed to have a pretty deep impact on her. Here's what she said.


ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, Michel, she's saying here that it's frightening. She almost wants to say that the German language barely has the words for the devastation that had been wrought on this area. But she added that despite all of this, she was reassured today by how people and communities are sticking together and how they're helping each other in showing solidarity. She was also asked about climate change. And she said that it was just a single event but that if you believe in the science like she does, this event was definitely related to the extreme weather events that typically occur due to climate change.

MARTIN: And, Rob, are these towns out of the woods now? I mean, are the rains over? Can people truly start to try to recover?

SCHMITZ: Well, the rains are over, but they're far from being out of the woods. Residents told me they've been told gas won't be restored for months. Electricity may take weeks to restore. I saw a lot of community spirit, though, today in the town that I visited - friends and families helping loved ones whose homes have been mostly destroyed. And it's clear that whatever is in store for this region, the people who live here have a lot of help.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Rob Schmitz. Rob, thank you so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.