More flash-floods have devastated towns in Austria, Bavaria and eastern Germany, as the frontrunner to replace the chancellor, Angela Merkel, was forced to apologise after seeming to make light of a catastrophic situation that has claimed the lives of more than 150 people.

The Alpine district of Berchtesgadener Land declared a state of emergency on Saturday evening after heavy rainfall led to flooded streets and landslides, leaving at least one person dead.

Across the border in Austria, a brook swollen with rainwater flooded the historic centre of the town of Hallein, south of Salzburg, trapping residents in their buildings, upending cars and inundating ground-floor shops. The town’s mayor, Alexander Stangassinger, told the broadcaster ORF the floods had caused millions of euros-worth of damages.

Water flows over a square in front of a house in Bischofswiesen, Germany
Water flows over a square in front of a house in Bischofswiesen, Germany, on Saturday. Photograph: Kilian Pfeiffer/AP

Several towns in the hilly eastern German region of Saxon Switzerland, south-east of Dresden, were also cut off and train services to the Czech Republic disrupted. Rainfall in the catchment basin of the Kirnitzsch and Sebnitz tributaries exceeded 100 litres a sq metre over the course of 24 hours, authorities reported, leading the waters to break the rivers’ banks.

On Wednesday and Thursday, a near-stationary low-pressure weather system over parts of western Germany brought intense rainfall and floods that claimed the lives of at least 110 people in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, and a further 45 in North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW).

Men clear a bridge from mud and debris in Hallein, Austria, after the historic centre was flooded.
Men clear a bridge from mud and debris in Hallein, Austria, after the historic centre was flooded. Photograph: Barbara Gindl/APA/AFP/Getty Images

Extreme weather events, which scientists say are happening more frequently because climate change, have hit Germany two months before federal elections that will determine a successor to Merkel, who is stepping down after 16 years in office.

The conservative frontrunner to step into her shoes, Armin Laschet, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), on Thursday interrupted a party meeting to attend flood-hit areas in NRW, the populous western state he represents as premier.

While visiting the devastated town of Erftstadt, where an eroded gravel quarry had swallowed cars, bits of road and entire buildings, Laschet was on Saturday caught sharing jokes with bystanders while the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, solemnly addressed the cameras.

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Armin Laschet seen laughing during German president's flood address – video
Armin Laschet seen laughing during German president’s flood address – video

Lars Klingbeil, the general secretary of the centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD), called Laschet’s behaviour “lacking in decency and appalling”. The broadcaster WDR commented that every election campaign offered a few moments “in which the candidates show their true colours”, adding: “Today is such a moment.”

Laschet tweeted an apology on Saturday afternoon. “The fate of those affected, which we heard about in many conversations, is important to us,” he wrote. “So I regret all the more the impression that arose from a conversational situation. That was inappropriate and I am sorry.”

The Green party’s candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, who has struggled to centre the national conversation around ecological issues after a strong start to her campaign, cut short her holiday to visit affected areas but declined to be accompanied by the press.

Merkel is scheduled to travel on Sunday to one of the two hardest-hit regions in western Germany, the village of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate state.

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