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Belgium's royals lead a day of mourning for flood victims

Raf Casert and Geir Moulson
Associated Press

Brussels — Belgium's king and queen visited the flood-stricken town of Verviers to lead the nation in a minute of silence Tuesday to remember those who died, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a second tour of the disaster zone in her country and pledged rapid help to those who lost nearly everything.

Rebuilding the massive damage in both countries from last week's rampaging torrents will take years and millions of euros.

“All means will be used,” promised King Philippe in his traditional address on the eve of Belgium's July 21 independence day, which will be more subdued this year because of the disaster.

Belgium's Queen Mathilde, right, speaks with residents affected by the floods, prior to participating in a ceremony of one minute of silence to pay respect to victims of the recent floods in Belgium, in Verviers, Belgium, Tuesday.

He and Queen Mathilde consoled those suffering in Verviers the wake of the floods that killed 31 people and left about 70 people missing in Belgium. At least 165 people died in Germany, bringing the death toll in both countries to 196.

Flags were lowered to half staff. At noon, sirens wailed across Belgium, followed by a minute of silence.

“We will not abandon you ... we will do everything possible to support you,” said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in an open letter.

Help is pouring in from elsewhere in Belgium, and about 10,000 volunteers have offered to go to the hilly eastern region to help in the cleanup once the high water recedes.

In Germany, where the damage is more extensive from the rushing floodwaters in once-picturesque villages, Merkel said the country faced “a very long haul” to recovery.

“We will not forget you,” she vowed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, informs herself in the district of Iversheim about the situation in the flood-affected area and meet victims of the flood disaster Tuesday.

Her visit came a day before her Cabinet plans to approve a package of immediate aid, expected to be about 400 million euros ($472 million).

“We will do everything … so that the money comes quickly to people who often have nothing left but the clothes on their backs,” Merkel said. “I hope this is a question of days.”

The government also plans a long-term reconstruction effort. Restoring infrastructure “will take more than a few months,” given the many bridges destroyed, she added.

It was her second visit to the region hit by the July 14-15 flash floods, and work continued to clean up piles of mud-caked debris and search for any more victims. She began her day in the town of Bad Muenstereifel, visiting a warehouse where donations were being stored.

In both Belgium and Germany, government leaders promised a redoubled political focus on curbing climate change. European Union environment ministers underscored the point when they met in Slovenia on Tuesday to assess the bloc's plan to contain climate change.

People rest from cleaning up the debris of the flood disaster in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, Monday.

Germany's deputy environment minister, Jochen Flasbarth, said that “we do not have an alternative" to delivering on that plan.

EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans agreed.

“What we’ve seen last week was a small reminder of the fact that the cost in human lives, but also material costs of nonaction are way, way higher than the cost of acting,” he said.

“Humanity will be confronted with very erratic weather patterns," he said, citing 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in northwestern Canada and 40 degrees (122 F) in Siberia and central Europe.

"The floods, droughts, agriculture’s dealing with wildfires. — that is a consequence of the climate crisis," he said.

Timmermans is the chief architect of the proposals to spend billions and force industry into drastic reforms to help cut the EU’s emissions of the gases that cause global warming by 55% this decade.

Belgium's King Philippe, second right, and Belgium's Queen Mathilde, second left, stand with emergency workers during one minute of silence to pay respect to victims of the recent floods in Belgium, in Verviers, Belgium, Tuesday.

In his speech, King Philippe noted that the floods came on top of the suffering in the coronavirus pandemic.

In Germany, officials voiced concern that the disaster could lead to new infections, which are beginning to rise from very low levels. The health ministry in Rhineland-Palatinate state said a special vaccination bus was being sent to the devastated Ahr valley to enable residents to get shots and COVID-19 tests.

“People are necessarily working hand in hand, often without being able to keep extensively to corona protection measures,” said Denis Alt, the state’s deputy health minister. “Despite the difficult circumstances, we want to offer the best possible protection in the corona pandemic here too.”

Moulson reported from Berlin.