Thousands of people in western Germany, as well as parts of Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, were driven from their homes today as the Rhine River and its tributaries swelled to record levels after a week of heavy rains and flooding. More than 25 people in the region have died -- 16 of them in France -- and 18,000 have been evacuated so far. Water levels in the German cathedral city of Cologne, which straddles the Rhine, reached 34 feet 7 inches, easily surpassing that of the last great flood in late 1993 and a record high in 1926. TIME Bonn bureau chief Bruce van Voorst reports that Germany has a better evacuation plan than it did a year ago. But bickering German states have failed to build new structures, such as dikes, that would have contained much of the water this time around. "The runoff is much faster now," he says. "Instead of having orchards and farms along the Rhine, you have parking lots."