At least 42 people have died in Germany and dozens were missing on Thursday as swollen rivers caused by record rainfall across western Europe swept through towns and villages, leaving cars upended, houses destroyed and people stranded on rooftops.

As the water started to recede, stunned residents in the worst affected towns inspected what was left of their homes and neighbourhoods.

In the town of Schuld, houses were reduced to piles of debris and broken beams. Roads were blocked by wreckage and fallen trees and fish flapped and gasped on puddles of water in the middle of the street.

“We have had have two or three days of constant rain. Or maybe four, I lost track,” said Klaus Radermacher, who has been living in Schuld for 60 years.

“I saw the pizza store getting flooded, half an hour later the bakery was flooded. There is a camping ground up there, so caravans and camper vans came floating past, gas tanks. We were powerless against it. It came so fast, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Eighteen people died and dozens were unaccounted for around the wine-growing region of Ahrweiler, in Rhineland-Palatinate state, police said, after the Ahr river that flows into the Rhine broke its banks and brought down half a dozen houses.

Another 15 people died in the Euskirchen region south of the city of Bonn, authorities said. People in the region were asked to evacuate their homes and emergency workers were pumping water from a dam south of Euskirchen town, fearing it could burst.

In Belgium, two men died due to the torrential rain and a 15-year-old girl was missing after being swept away by an overflowing river.

Hundreds of soldiers and 2,500 relief workers were helping police with rescue efforts in Germany. Tanks were deployed to clear roads of landslides and fallen trees and helicopters winched those stranded on rooftops to safety.

Around 200,000 households lost power due to the floods.

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