AHRWEILER, Germany – The Rev. Joerg Meyrer hardens before weaving his way through the stinking piles of mud-covered rubble that permeate this once beautiful city in Germany’s Ahr wine valley.
For the past five days, the 58-year-old Catholic priest has donned his galoshes and walked the streets to try to comfort his parishioners as they continue the grim task of cleaning up what was destroyed by Wednesday’s flash flood. and recover the bodies of those who perished in it.
“It washed over us like a tsunami,” Meyrer recalls. “Bridges, houses, apartments, utility pipes, everything that really constitutes this city, what lives in, has been gone since that night.”
Ahrweiler residents had been told to expect the Ahr River, a tributary of the Rhine, to reach the crest at 7 meters (almost 23 feet), but Meyrer said few understood what that would mean. The last major flood in the area south of Bonn was more than a century ago.
Nearly 200 people were killed when heavy rains turned streams into raging torrents in parts of western Germany and Belgium, and authorities put the death toll in Ahrweiler county alone at 110, making it the worst-hit region.
Meyrer, who expects that number to rise significantly, said the victims came from all walks of life.
“Elderly people who died in bed because they could not get up or because they did not listen to him; young people who died minutes after helping others; people who died in their car because they wanted to get it out when the flood wave surprised them. “
The townspeople recounted sad cases of belated mourning, as they began to realize that the reported missing would not return.
Meyrer said he was called when firefighters found the body of a woman he knew well.
“The husband knew that his wife had been in the basement and had to wait two days for her to recover,” he said.
For now, many residents are focusing on cleanup before dealing with the longer task of rebuilding.
“We have to start over,” said Paddy Amanatidis, the owner of La Perla pizzeria, as she took a break from cleaning up debris from the restaurant.
“We are fighting to overcome (the coronavirus pandemic) and the flood will not sink us either,” he said, adding that the solidarity shown by neighbors and friends has helped lift spirits.
Meyrer believes that even for those who were fortunate enough not to have lost loved ones, the enormous impact of the disaster has not fully affected them.
“When the first batch (of debris) has been cleared and people have nothing to do, then I think many will understand for the first time what they have lost and what that means,” he said.
German officials have rejected allegations that they failed to adequately warn people about the severity of the floods, but admitted that more lessons can be learned from the disaster. Experts say that global warming can make such floods even more frequent.
Upstream in the largely destroyed village of Schuld, Mayor Helmut Lussi said the scars will last a long time. “Our lives changed overnight,” he told German Chancellor Merkel, who was visiting on Sunday.
As for mourning the victims, Meyrer says the daunting task will require the help of clergy from across the city and beyond.
In addition to the large number of deaths, the authorities must also find out where to bury them, because the local cemetery was also flooded and almost no headstone was left standing.
While the recently renovated Gothic walls of the 13th-century San Lorenzo church were miraculously untouched by the floods, Meyrer plans to keep walking the streets for now, offering a helping hand, an understanding ear, and a shoulder to cry on.
But even he is struggling, saying that prayer has not been easy in the days since the disaster struck.
“I don’t have the words, the time, the peace,” he said. “I can’t do that right now.”
“At night I try to say, ‘Lord, somehow you have to take control now.’ That has to be good enough, ”he added.