Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, is in shock. Entire municipalities there have been evacuated, including Heimerzheim, a town of 6,000.
Uwe and Robert Gödecke were able to rescue their wallets and some dog food, but that's all. It was 3 a.m. when the flood woke them from a deep sleep. Within minutes, the German Red Cross helped them and their dog, Kuno, scramble out of the kitchen window into a waiting motorboat.
"Everything floated past us: the lawn furniture, beach baskets, garbage cans," Uwe Gödecke told DW. Two of their neighbors are still missing.
They were just a few of the 6,000 inhabitants of Heimerzheim who had to be evacuated after the Swist River, usually 2 meters (6.5 feet) across, swelled to become 200 meters wide, flooding basements and living rooms all over the town. Residents here — like many across the state where dramatic scenes played out all through the night — now worry about what will happen to their homes and possessions.
Manfred Lütz, deputy mayor of Heimerzheim for the last 15 years, had tears in his eyes as he related his experiences of the unforgettable night. He said that he and fellow helpers had bailed 300 buckets of water from his house in vain. "The Swist came and ruined everything. Our house is now completely underwater."
Lütz said he had reserved hotel rooms for his neighbors. "Nothing like this has happened since the '60s," he said.
Torsten Clemens, deputy chief of the Swisttal volunteer firefighters, was also amazed and exhausted after spending all night on duty along with 180 colleagues. "I've never seen water come so fast and in such quantities," he told DW.
At the start of the evening, the firefighters had tried to get the flood under control with the help of dozens of pumping stations, but by 10 p.m. it became increasingly clear that they would not suffice. "We still had dry feet but 10 minutes later we were 10 centimeters (4 inches) deep in water," said Clemens.
Some people refused to evacuate
Firefighters evacuated five streets at lightning speed but say some people refused to leave their homes. When the Swist overflowed, it became clear that their only option was to get out and to try to save themselves.
"We could see the water coming and we said there was no point, otherwise we wouldn't be able to get our vehicles out. There was no way of salvaging anything. People couldn't even get their cars out of the way," said Clemens.
Afterwards, the fire department started using small boats to evacuate anybody who was left but the task was made difficult by the strong current. "Now that there is no electricity, we've decided to evacuate everybody," he said.
On Thursday, Clemens was unable to give a complete picture of the overall damage. Frank Braun, head of public relations at the German Red Cross, also told DW about the night as he sat in a small sports hall serving as a makeshift shelter for 180 people who needed accommodation for the night.
Tables were loaded with dry clothes donated by neighbors, and counselors were on hand to provide comfort and encouragement at the hall. "It was very difficult to reach all units because the roads and even the highways were flooded," Braun said, visibly drained.
Heinz Schmitz and his wife were able to stay with friends. They are among Heimerzheim's oldest residents, having built their house — which they renovated just a few years ago — over 40 years ago. "Now, there is water on the ground floor and everything will have to be pulled out and left to dry. It will take a year-and-a-half," Heinz Schmitz said.
He was fortunate enough to have a basic insurance policy but did not know whether he would be fully compensated.
"It's going to be impossible for us and our neighbors to live in our homes over the next months and years," he said with tears in his eyes.