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Germans return to flooded town: 'The memories are gone'

ERFTSTADT, Germany (AP) — They escaped with their lives, but little else remains for some residents of Erftstadt-Blessem after the devastating flood that hit their town and other parts of Germany and neighboring countries last week.

Authorities allowed families in the town southwest of Cologne to enter their homes for the first time Thursday so they could survey the wreckage and salvage anything important they could find, which wasn't much.

Residents had been kept away from parts of the town for a week amid concern that buildings could collapse due to the large-scale subsidence that resulted in a landslide at a nearby quarry, leaving a vast, gaping hole in the ground.

“How does one feel when one loses everything?” Erftstadt-Blessem resident Susanne Dunkel, 70, said. “It's sad.” Dunkel, who has lived in Erftstadt for most of her adult life, emptied cupboards full of kitchen equipment made unusable by the stinking mud that seeped into every corner of her home's ground floor and basement. She said she hoped insurance would help cover some of the damage.

“There’s the washing machine. It’s not even 6 months old,” she said. Dunkel recounted how her family tried to keep the rising waters of the Erft River at bay, only for a sudden surge to sweep into the building, forcing her to escape through a window.

“We’ve never experienced anything like this,” she said. Dunkel, whose son and brother-in-law died in recent months, said her family had to split up while staying with friends and relatives after the flood. She sobbed as she spoke of missing her grandchildren.

“They want to come home,” she said. “It’s terrible. They’re normally here with me, with grandma.” More than 177 people died in Germany in last week's flooding and a further 31 deaths were reported in Belgium, taking the overall death toll to 208.

While nobody was killed in the Netherlands, raging waters caused widespread damage in the southern Dutch province of Limburg. The mayor of the hardest-hit Dutch town, Valkenburg, has said that the tourism center suffered damage to buildings and lost business worth 400 million euros ($472 million).

A Dutch investigative panel said Thursday it is launching a preliminary probe into the flooding that will focus on “the safety of citizens who were dependent on decision-making and action by governments” for flood prevention and measures taken during last week’s crisis.

The cost of the floods in Germany has yet to be determined “but it is immense,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a news conference in Berlin on Thursday. Her Cabinet approved a roughly 400 million-euro ($472 million) package of immediate aid for flood victims. It promised to get moving quickly on funding plans to rebuild devastated areas, which is expected to cost billions.

Still, Merkel cautioned: “We will need a long time to repair all this damage.” Germany's national weather service DWD said Thursday that localized storms were again likely in parts of the flood-affected regions from midday Saturday.

Back in Erftstadt, friends and neighbors helped affected residents strip their homes of debris in the hope of saving flood-soaked walls and floors. Brigitte Berger wept as she emptied entire cupboards full of possessions, from household goods to cherished mementos.

“We’re empty,” she said. “The memories are gone. There’s nothing.” Her husband, Heinz Berger, gestured to the remains of their home. “We built everything with our own hands,” he said. “It’s all gone.”

Jordans reported from Bonn, Germany. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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