Berlin, Germany – A bright blue painting sits on the wet debris scattered around the streets of Stolberg in West Germany, marking the studio of local artist Dennis Brandt.
Inside, more wreckage is piled up in a mound and wet splashes pop up from the walls where the floodwater rose almost to the ceiling.
“The city was destroyed, all really, roads and houses,” Brandt told Al Jazeera.
“My studies, 20 years of work, painting, everything went well. It was a painting school for the kids too, now it’s gone too ”.
Among his now-destroyed collection was a post-apocalyptic vision of Stolberg he had painted last year, depicting tall waters revolving around the city’s market. Brandt could hardly believe it had become a reality.
“Many of my friends no longer have homes,” he said. “It’s like a war.”
Scenes of devastation in Stolberg have been replicated in phases in West Germany and Belgium this week as floods have devastated the region’s low-lying cities.
In Germany, at least 133 people have died, making it the worst natural disaster to hit the country in nearly 60 years.
The Ahrweiler district in southern Cologne has killed at least 90 people, including 12 residents in a care home for the disabled.
The tragedy has raised many concerns that German authorities have not done enough to prepare for increasingly frequent attacks of extreme weather, driven by climate change.
Between Tuesday and Thursday, an unusually static low-pressure zone unleashed record levels of precipitation, with the worst-hit areas affected by intense storms Wednesday night.
Some received as much as two months of precipitation in just 24 hours, the German meteorological agency said.
Tens of thousands of emergency services and at least 850 soldiers were deployed in the affected areas, using helicopters, armored vehicles and boats to rescue people trapped by the waters and search the remains of the destroyed buildings.
Rescue operations continue, but have been hampered by significant damage to infrastructure, with many roads damaged or impassable, telephone networks down in several areas, and more than 100,000 people without power since Friday evening.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Erftstadt in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) on Saturday, consoling those affected by the tragedy.
“We are in mourning with those who have lost friends, acquaintances, family members,” he said. “His fate snatches our hearts.”
Armin Laschet, NRW’s prime minister and favorite to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor after the September election, appeared alongside Steinmeier, and promised quick financial assistance to those affected.
“We will do everything so that what needs to be rebuilt can be rebuilt.”
Although flood water has decreased in some areas, authorities remain on high alert.
About 700 residents of a Wassenberg district, near the Dutch border, were evacuated last night while a Ruhr dam broke.
Wassenberg mayor Marcel Maurer said the situation was stabilizing, but it was “too early to give it any clarity.”
Germany’s meteorological service also issued meteorological alerts for south-eastern Bavaria this weekend, where floods are forecast over the Danube.
Calm and narrow river
During his 20 years of life in Erftstadt, Johannes Ahrends never had reason to worry about the calm and narrow river from which the city takes its name.
But this week’s flood sent torrents rushing downstream, shattering flood defenses and engulfing the city.
Houses have been gutted by rising waters and cars are now scattered like toys in the middle of debris.
In nearby Blessem, water flooded a gravel pit, triggering a landslide that destroyed several houses and a historic castle.
Authorities rescued 170 people, many of them airlifted to safety.
No casualties have been reported, although soldiers continue to search for vehicles on a nearby blocked highway stretch, where it is not known if all the drivers escaped.
Although Ahrends’ house was located about 400 meters from the flood, others were less fortunate.
“A friend of mine who lived in that area lost all his clothes, his house, his car, everything,” he told Al Jazeera.
As soldiers arrived to help and rumors of helicopters filled the air, locals have begun their own initiative, he said, setting up a Facebook group to coordinate and provide sandbags and food for their neighbors.
“We need new infrastructure, but in this area Blessem there is a forum with a depth of 10 meters, so how can you ever recreate it? It’s so scary and incredible that a part of the city is really gone and there is no the possibility of rebuilding it ”.
The disaster has raised questions about whether Germany’s flood warning systems are suitable for increasingly unpredictable weather events in an ever-warmer climate.
Emergency alerts and evacuation alerts were issued when real-time river sensors detected a massive peak in water levels.
But small flows and tributaries that were not previously perceived as threats have not been monitored closely, the Rhineland-Palatinate environment minister acknowledged.
“Extreme rains were in the forecast, but not consistently in the right places and at the right magnitudes,” said Andreas Fink, a climate researcher at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
“There have been warnings, but the villages along the small river in the Eifel have not been evacuated.”
Fink said improved forecasting and evacuation procedures should be put in place immediately.
“Higher and better infrastructure will take time, but we need decisions now,” he added.
The disaster once again forced the climate to the forefront of the political agenda a few months before the federal elections.
Although Merkel’s Christian Democrats have maintained a comfortable voting leader, her successor Laschet is widely seen as weak in climate protection because of her support for coal mining and the automotive industry – with an influential weekly article in Zeit on Friday describing him as “Realpolitker on the run from reality”.
But for now the campaigns have been suspended and politicians are focused on helping the victims and mourning the dead.
Ahrends ’first concern is for the reconstruction of Erftstadt and the relocation of its neighbors, but he knows that the city’s situation is a sign of an increasingly unpredictable future.
“There is no doubt that this is climate change,” he said.