The chance of still finding survivors among the debris of last weekend’s severe floods in Wallonia is now all but non-existent, according to Alain Remue, head of the country’s missing persons unit.
The unit worked yesterday through national day, with five mobile teams and five sniffer dogs trained to find bodies living or dead. A sixth dog is off duty after being injured yesterday.
Officially, the death toll is now 32, after a woman was found in Wanze near Liege. “In that case we knew where to look,” Remue said.
That leaves 18 people unaccounted for – that the unit knows of. These are people who have been reported missing, or have not turned up where they are expected to be.
The fear among aid workers and police, however, is the ‘dark number’ – people who may have been swept away by floods without anyone noticing. People living in isolation, without friends or family, for example, or foreign workers living and working off the books and living in ramshackle cabins.
A number of bodies may never be found. The video of the floods at their height showed the massive power of a force of water. Add to that the debris of buildings, fallen masonry and all the other detritus of a flood, and a body in the water might not last long in one piece.
The other problem is where to look.
“We once found a body 100km away, and once even a body 25km upstream,” Remue said. Where do you even start? This disaster has such an unseen dimension that a body can float or hang almost anywhere. However, we will continue to search until we can get the list of missing persons as close to zero as possible. That is our main concern now.”
The search, in other words, is no longer prioritising survivors.
"The death toll will continue to rise in the coming days," he said. "We must remain hopeful, but above all realistic: that chance is now gone, a week after the start of the disaster."