As entire communities lie in ruins after swollen rivers swept through towns and villages in Western Europe, experts said the ferocity of the rainfall and disregarding warnings about its arrival was likely responsible for the high number of deaths.
At least 120 people were killed in the flash floods and thousands more are missing in Germany and Belgium. Mobile phone networks have collapsed in some areas, leaving people unable to find their loved ones. Luxembourg and the Netherlands were also affected by heavy downpours.
“Very sadly we see by the death toll and the somewhat slow response that it took a lot of people by surprise,” Ilan Kelman, professor of disaster and health at University College London, told NBC News on Friday. UK.
And this despite the fact that there had been “several days of warning in advance that there could be a major danger to life from the floods,” he added.
Claire Nullis, spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organization, said reports were coming in that some people had ignored the warnings. “Others were surprised by the extent of the rainfall,” she said.
Parts of Western Europe received up to two months of rain on Wednesday and Thursday on already saturated soil, WMO said. Germany’s national weather service, DWD, reported about 4 to 6 inches of precipitation during that 24-hour period.
“It’s something we’re not used to in Europe,” Nullis said. “Rainfall like this is something you see in tropical countries.”
Had the rainfall been spread over several weeks, the affected areas likely could have coped, according to Kathryn Prociv, a meteorologist for NBC News.
Instead, she said they were affected by what meteorologists called a “100-year event.”
“So much rain coming in such a short time flooded the rivers and the area that had already had a really rainy season,” she said. “So the soils were saturated, which made the area much more vulnerable to flooding because the soil couldn’t take that water. “
Prociv added that the storm system that created the rain “was a blocked low pressure area,” known as a “traffic jam” or “blockage pattern.”
Related: After days of heavy rain, 103 people have died in Germany alone, the highest number killed in a natural disaster in the country in nearly 60 years.
Whether the affected areas and the people who live there had the “resources or the opportunities” to act before the flood was debatable, Kelman said.
“Some people want to avoid being in close contact with others because of the pandemic,” he said. It would raise questions for people about where they would go and if they could afford to leave, he added.
Download the NBC News app for the latest news and politics
Other people, especially people with disabilities, may not have had the support systems in place to help them leave, he said. Some may not have known they lived in floodplains, he added.
Kelman, Prociv, and WMO have all linked storms to climate change.
“A warming atmosphere can hold more water,” Prociv said. “So with climate change, there’s more water up there for it to rain.”
After the heat wave in the United States earlier this month, it took scientists several days to conclude that it was likely the result of “man-made climate change,” Kelman said.
“Whether or not climate change contributed to the flooding is less relevant than the fact that we received warnings earlier in the week and the fact that some people did not even know they were in a risky place. to be flooded, ”he said. .
The cause of the floods often turned out to be generations to come, whether it was corruption, lack of funding or poor planning that was responsible for it, he added.
“We have to prepare for the floods. It is unacceptable that more than 100 people have died in rich countries because of something that we know had to happen, ”he said.
“We cannot let this go,” he added. “We have to find out what went wrong.”