Merkel heads to flood zone facing questions over preparedness

BERLIN, July 20 (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel headed again to the country's flood disaster zone on Tuesday, her government besieged by questions over how Europe's richest economy was caught flat-footed by flooding that had been predicted days earlier.

The floods have killed more than 160 people in Germany since tearing through villages, sweeping away houses, roads and bridges last week, highlighting gaps in how warnings of severe weather are passed on to the population.

With the country about 10 weeks away from national elections, the floods have put the crisis management skills of Germany's leaders on the agenda, with opposition politicians suggesting the death toll revealed serious failings in Germany's flood preparedness.

Government officials on Monday rejected suggestions that they had done too little to prepare for the floods and said warning systems had worked. read more

As the search continues for survivors, Germany is starting to count the financial cost of its worst natural disaster in almost 60 years.

On her first visit to a flood-stricken town on Sunday, a shaken Merkel had described the flooding as "terrifying", promising swift financial aid. read more

Rebuilding destroyed infrastructure will require a "major financial effort" in the coming years, a draft document showed on Tuesday.

For immediate relief, the federal government plans to provide 200 million euros ($236 million) in emergency aid to repair buildings, damaged local infrastructure and to help people in crisis situations, the draft document, due to go to cabinet on Wednesday, showed.

That will come on top of 200 million euros that would come from the 16 federal states. The government also hopes for financial support from the European Union's solidarity fund.

During a visit on Saturday to parts of Belgium also hit by the floods, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told the communities Europe was with them. "We are with you in mourning and we will be with you in rebuilding," she said.

Southern Germany has also been hit by floods and the state of Bavaria is initially making 50 million euros available in emergency aid for victims, Bavaria's premier said on Tuesday.

German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze called for greater financial resources to prevent extreme weather events caused by climate change.

"The current events in so many places in Germany show with what force the consequences of climate change can hit us all," she told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.

Currently, the government is limited in what it can do to support flood and drought prevention by the constitution, she said, adding she would favour anchoring adaptations for climate change in the Basic Law.

Experts say the floods that hit northwestern Europe last week should act as a warning that long-term climate change prevention is needed. read more

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Reporting by Holger Hansen; Writing by Kirsti Knolle and Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan and Alison Williams

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