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Belgian floods: More than 150 remain missing as rescue operation ends and clean-up begins

21:48 18/07/2021

Belgian authorities have now confirmed 31 deaths following the flash flooding that hit the south-east of the country last week.

The rescue operation has been called off. Some 163 people are still missing, the federal crisis centre said on Sunday.

"We must be honest - our search will now be focused on finding bodies," said Alain Remue from Belgium's missing persons unit. "It's a huge area - not just a municipality but the entire province of Liège and also those of Namur and Luxembourg."

In Pepinster, one of the worst-affected towns, 12 people died - of whom nine have been identified - and 20 missing people remain unaccounted for. More than 1,000 people in the municipality had to leave their homes.

"People have come from Flanders, elsewhere in Wallonia and even France to help," said Pepinster mayor Philippe Godin. "The mobilisation is enormous."

Some of the worst-hit towns in Wallonia reported cases of "disaster tourism" - visitors coming to see the devastation for themselves. "These are people who are absolutely not dressed to provide assistance - they have come empty-handed," said Cédric Halin, mayor of Olne (Liège province). "It is completely reprehensible. They come with their vehicles and take up space that is needed for the clean-up operation."

Now begins the major clean-up work - and assessments of damage to property for insurance purposes. The federal government has a meeting scheduled for Monday with representatives from the insurance sector, to ensure all claims are handled consistently and that payments are not delayed.

Belgium will seek several hundred million euros in aid from the European Union solidarity fund. "There is a lot of damage all over the country," said prime minister Alexander De Croo. "Municipalities cannot bear the cost of reconstruction on their own and we will help them."

On Sunday afternoon, some 3,700 households in Wallonia were still without drinking water. At least 11,000 homes in Liège province and Walloon Brabant have no electricity.

Most mainline rail routes in Wallonia are due to reopen on Monday, including Liège-Namur, Namur-Dinant, Charleroi-Namur and Charleroi-Ottignies. Some smaller branch lines are likely to remain closed until late August. These include Liège-Verviers and Pepinster-Spa.

Tuesday has been declared a national day of mourning for the victims of the flooding. The Bal National, on the eve of the 21 July Belgian national holiday, has been cancelled.

The Foire du Midi funfair in Brussels will fall silent for five minutes on Tuesday at 19.00. "We will stop everything: the music, the lights, the attractions," a spokesperson said.

Photo: Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga

Written by The Bulletin