AHRWEILER, Germany (AP) — The Rev. Joerg Meyrer steels himself before making his way through the stinking piles of mud-caked debris that permeate this once-beautiful town in Germany’s wine-growing Ahr valley.
For the past five days, the 58-year-old Catholic priest has pulled on his galoshes and walked the streets to try to give comfort to his parishioners as they get on with the grim task of cleaning up what was destroyed by Wednesday’s flash flood — and recovering the bodies of those who perished in it.
“It came over us like a tsunami,” Meyrer recalls. “Bridges, houses, apartments, utility pipes — everything that actually constitutes this town, what it lives on, has been gone since that night.”
Residents of Ahrweiler had been told to expect the Ahr River, a tributary of the Rhine, to crest at nearly 23 feet, but Meyrer said few comprehended what that would mean. The last serious flood in the area south of Bonn was more than a century ago.
At least 201 people were killed when heavy rainfall turned streams into raging torrents across parts of western Germany and Belgium, with Ahrweiler county the hardest-hit area.
Meyrer, who expects the death toll to rise significantly, said the victims came from all walks of life.
“Old people who died in bed because they couldn’t get up or because they didn’t hear it; young people who died minutes after helping others; people who died in their car because they wanted to drive it out when the flood wave surprised them.”
Townspeople recounted grim cases of delayed grief, as the realization began to sink in that those reported missing would not return.
Meyrer said he was called in when firefighters found the body of a woman he had known well.
“The husband knew his wife had been in the basement and he had to wait two days for her to be recovered,” he said.
For now, many residents are focusing on the cleanup before dealing with the longer task of rebuilding.