Anatoli Neugebauer is just 100 meters from his family home, on the edge of the Blessem district of Erftstadt, a suburban town 20 km south of Cologne. Even though the floodwaters of the River Erft had started to recede by noon on Friday, he still had to wade through waist-deep brown water just to enter the stucco terraced house.
“It’s completely indescribable,” says Neugebauer, 40. “A disaster.”
“I was there twice yesterday to try to save what I could. But you open the door and the water is in your chest and you just wonder why am I doing this? Everything is destroyed.
Neugebauer was one of 1,905 villagers evacuated on Thursday as the river began to overflow after record rainfall.
Familiar landscape transformed into dangerous terrain: a gravel quarry south of Blessem, 40 hectares (99 acres) wide and 60 meters deep, quickly filled with water, its edge extending towards the town by erosion towards the head, engulfing several cars, three half-timbered buildings and parts of a castle.
Local authorities are still looking for 15 people they believe may have been inside the houses. “We assume there will be deaths but we are not sure,” said Herbert Reul, Minister of the Interior of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.
A near-stationary low-pressure weather system brought record rain levels to the Rhein-Erft-Kreis region until around 9 p.m. Wednesday, initially inundating fields and farms.
The hay and vegetable fields that a few weeks ago withered from years of drought suddenly filled with standing water. Basements and ground-floor houses and apartments in the agricultural region began to flood.
“For a while we thought we had to evacuate our 200 animals,” says farmer Peter Zens, who runs the Gertrudenhof petting zoo in Hürth, located halfway between Erftstadt and Cologne. “But we spent 18 hours pumping water all night, and in the end we were lucky.”
But as Zens managed to empty his farm, the waters of the rivers, streams and streams that flowed through the area began to rise. “Here we have the Rotbach stream which often dries up in summer,” Zens explains. “Now it was a stream foaming like the Rhine.”
When the river overflowed the next day, it nevertheless surprised many in Erftstadt.
“We were constantly cycling through town, watching the river waters rise higher,” says Neugebauer. “We waited as long as we could, but when we saw the trucks on Luxemburger Strasse underwater, we packed the car and the kids and went to a family in the next town.”
Water along Luxemburger Strasse, the main thoroughfare connecting Erftstadt to Cologne, appears to have rushed without warning, trapping trucks and cars, throwing vehicles against guardrails and along the crumbling walls of the ramp. Parts of the A1 motorway outside the city collapsed and collapsed into the Erft.
Neugebauer says they left before receiving official evacuation orders. Officials say many others in the city ignored the warning to leave. Police said they used boats to rescue around 50 people from their homes.
Storms and floods are nothing new in Rhein-Erft-Kreis, an area dotted with surface mines historically used to extract lignite, gravel or sand.
When the owners of the Blessem gravel quarry requested an extension in 2015, local authorities granted their request on condition that a 1.2 km protective wall was built to prevent the pit from filling with water by flood event.
But the kind of extreme weather events that the world experiences more and more frequently have unpredictable consequences. The protective wall between the gravel pit and the Erft proved ineffective as water overflowed higher into the river, gushing through the city streets before accumulating at the lowest point.
Matthias Habel, a Bonn-based geographer who studied flood protection measures in the region as part of his degree, said the catastrophic outcome of the floods would come as no surprise to those familiar with the situation on the ground.
“Where the Erft passes through Erftstadt it is no longer a naturally flowing river but rather an artificially straightened canal,” Habel told the Guardian. “It sinks much faster here than elsewhere and lacks natural floodplains that could cope with the overflow.”
Friday afternoon the town was almost empty of people except for the soldiers trying unsuccessfully to keep onlookers at bay.
At the end of Frauentaler Strasse, normally 100 meters from the Erft, a red brick building was missing from its lower floors, the walls hanging precariously above the flood waters.
The water was covered with oil and the smell of gas hung in the air. Improvised bags of potting soil and sandbox sand had failed to prevent the flooding from seeping in: traces of water on older brick buildings showed it was at least more than one meter high.
People from neighboring villages have arrived to watch over their neighbors. “It’s absolutely shocking,” said a young couple. “We drive here every day and it is unlike anything we have ever seen.”