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Merkel heads to flood zone facing questions over preparedness

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A damaged bridge on B9 national road is seen in an area affected by floods caused by heavy rainfalls, in Sinzig, Germany, July 20, 2021. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
A general view of the Lebenshilfe Haus, a care home in an area affected by floods caused by heavy rainfalls, in Sinzig, Germany, July 20, 2021. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

German Chancellor Angela Merkel headed again to the country's flood disaster zone on Tuesday (20 July), her government besieged by questions over how Europe's richest economy was caught flat-footed by flooding that had been predicted days earlier, writes Holger Hansen, Reuters.

The floods have killed more than 160 people in Germany since tearing through villages, sweeping away houses, roads and bridges last week, highlighting gaps in how warnings of severe weather are passed on to the population.

With the country about 10 weeks away from national elections, the floods have put the crisis management skills of Germany's leaders on the agenda, with opposition politicians suggesting the death toll revealed serious failings in Germany's flood preparedness.

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Government officials on Monday (19 July) rejected suggestions that they had done too little to prepare for the floods and said warning systems had worked. Read more.

As the search continues for survivors, Germany is starting to count the financial cost of its worst natural disaster in almost 60 years.

On her first visit to a flood-stricken town on Sunday (18 July), a shaken Merkel had described the flooding as "terrifying", promising swift financial aid. Read more.

Rebuilding destroyed infrastructure will require a "major financial effort" in the coming years, a draft document showed on Tuesday.

For immediate relief, the federal government plans to provide 200 million euros ($236 million) in emergency aid to repair buildings, damaged local infrastructure and to help people in crisis situations, the draft document, due to go to cabinet on Wednesday, showed.

That will come on top of 200 million euros that would come from the 16 federal states. The government also hopes for financial support from the European Union's solidarity fund.

During a visit on Saturday to parts of Belgium also hit by the floods, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told the communities Europe was with them. "We are with you in mourning and we will be with you in rebuilding," she said.

Southern Germany has also been hit by floods and the state of Bavaria is initially making 50 million euros available in emergency aid for victims, Bavaria's premier said on Tuesday.

German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze called for greater financial resources to prevent extreme weather events caused by climate change.

"The current events in so many places in Germany show with what force the consequences of climate change can hit us all," she told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.

Currently, the government is limited in what it can do to support flood and drought prevention by the constitution, she said, adding she would favour anchoring adaptations for climate change in the Basic Law.

Experts say the floods that hit northwestern Europe last week should act as a warning that long-term climate change prevention is needed. Read more.

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Disasters

Hope of finding survivors of blast in German industrial park fades

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A view shows Chempark following an explosion in Leverkusen, Germany, July 27, 2021. REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler

The operator of a German industrial park that was rocked by an explosion on Tuesday (27 July) dampened hopes of finding more survivors in the debris and warned residents near the site to stay away from soot that rained down after the blast, write Tom Kaeckenhoff and Maria Sheahan, Reuters.

Two people were found dead after the explosion at the Chempark site, home to chemicals companies including Bayer (BAYGn.DE) and Lanxess (LXSG.DE), and 31 were injured.

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Five are still missing, Currenta chief Frank Hyldmar told journalists on Wednesday, adding that "we have to assume that we will not find them alive".

With the focus on the scene still on finding the missing people, including with the aid of high-resolution drones, the company said it was still too early to say what caused the explosion, which led to a fire in a tank containing solvents.

Experts are also analysing whether soot that rained down on the surrounding area after the blast could be toxic.

Until the results are in, residents should avoid getting the soot on their skin and bringing it into the house on their shoes, and they should not eat fruit from their gardens, Hermann Greven of the Leverkusen fire department said.

He also said that playgrounds in the area have been closed.

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Disasters

Blast in German industrial park kills two, several missing

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An explosion in a German industrial park on Tuesday (27 July) killed at least two people and injured 31, setting off a fierce blaze that sent a pall of smoke over the western city of Leverkusen. Several people were still missing, write Maria Sheahan, Madeline Chambers and Caroline Copley, Reuters.

Emergency services took three hours to extinguish the fire at the Chempark site, home to chemicals companies Bayer (BAYGn.DE) and Lanxess (LXSG.DE), that flared up after the blast at 9h40 (7h40 GMT), park operator Currenta said.

"My thoughts are with the injured and with loved ones," said Chempark chief Lars Friedrich. "We are still searching for the missing people, but hopes of finding them alive are fading," he added.

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Police said five of the 31 injured people were affected seriously enough to need intensive care.

"This is a tragic moment for the city of Leverkusen," said Uwe Richrath, mayor of the city, which lies north of Cologne.

The area and surrounding roads were sealed off for much of the day.

Police told residents living nearby to stay indoors and shut doors and windows in case there were toxic fumes. Currenta said locals should also turn off air conditioning systems while it measured the air around the site for possible toxic gases.

Firefighters stand outside Chempark following an explosion in Leverkusen, Germany, July 27, 2021. REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler
Smoke billows following an explosion in Leverkusen, Germany, July 27, 2021, in this still image taken from social media video. Instagram/Rogerbakowsky via REUTERS

Chempark's Friedrich said it was not clear what had caused the explosion, which led to a fire starting in a tank containing solvents.

"Solvents were burned during the incident, and we do not know precisely what substances were released," Friedrich added. "We are examining this with authorities, taking samples."

Sirens and emergency alerts on the German civil protection agency's mobile phone app warned citizens of "extreme danger".

Leverkusen is less than 50 km (30 miles) from a region hit last week by catastrophic floods that killed at least 180 people.

More than 30 companies operate at the Chempark site in Leverkusen, including Covestro (1COV.DE), Bayer, Lanxess and Arlanxeo, according to its website.

Bayer and Lanxess in 2019 sold Chempark operator Currenta to Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets (MQG.AX) for an enterprise value of €3.5 billion ($4.12bn).

($1 = €0.8492)

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Belgium

Cars and pavements washed away as Belgian town hit by worst floods in decades

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The southern Belgian town of Dinant was hit by the heaviest floods in decades on Saturday (24 July) after a two-hour thunderstorm turned streets into torrential streams that washed away cars and pavements but did not kill anyone, writes Jan Strupczewski, Reuters.

Dinant was spared the deadly floods 10 days ago that killed 37 people in southeast Belgium and many more in Germany, but the violence of Saturday's storm surprised many.

"I have been living in Dinant for 57 years, and I've never seen anything like that," Richard Fournaux, the former mayor of the town on the Meuse river and birthplace of the 19th century inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, said on social media.

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A woman works to recover her belongings following heavy rainfall in Dinant, Belgium July 25, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron
A woman walks in an area affected by heavy rainfall in Dinant, Belgium July 25, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Rainwater gushing down steep streets swept away dozens of cars, piling them in a heap at a crossing, and washed away cobbles stones, pavements and whole sections of tarmac as inhabitants watched in horror from windows.

There was no precise estimate of the damage, with town authorities predicting only that it would be "significant", according to Belgian RTL TV.

The storm wreaked similar havoc, also with no loss of life, in the small town of Anhee a few kilometres north of Dinant.

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