50 dead after freak rains wreak havoc in France
VIOLENT storms swept through western Europe at the weekend, killing up to 50 people in France and threatening further damage as powerful winds and torrential rains moved north, officials said.
The storms ripped through cities, uprooting trees and street signs, wreaking havoc on rail networks and forcing hundreds of flights to be cancelled.
Three people were killed in Spain, two in Germany and one in Portugal, but France was the worst hit as heavy rains, strong gusts of wind and high tides destroyed Atlantic coast sea walls, killing 25 people in the town of l'Aiguillon sur Mer alone.
"It is a natural catastrophe," French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said, estimating the total death toll in France at between 45 and 50 and warning that high tides could cause further damage.
Mr Hortefeux said the French government had set aside €1m in immediate relief aid and Budget Minister Eric Woerth issued a statement saying victims could seek tax relief.
The French regions of Vendee and Charente Maritime bore the brunt of the storm and were placed on flood alert along with parts of Brittany.
Centuries-old trees were uprooted in the gardens of the Versailles palace near Paris, according to France Info radio.
Weather forecasters said the storm, named Xynthia, had moved up to northeast France and Belgium and would hit Denmark next. Meteo France said the storms seemed less fierce than those that battered France in December 1999, killing 92 people.
"Policemen are currently touring flooded houses and some of their inhabitants were found drowned," said Frederic Rose, cabinet head of the Vendee Prefect.
A woman in l'Aiguillon sur Mer in Vendee, where a sea wall collapsed, said she swam out of her house through the bathroom in the middle of the night to join neighbours on their roof.
A man in Loire-Atlantique, who spent the night on the roof of his restaurant, said: "It was as if we were on an island."
Two people were killed near the northern Spanish city of Burgos when their car hit a fallen tree and a woman died when a wall fell on her in northwestern Spain, authorities said.
Unusually strong winds also uprooted trees in many parts of Portugal and heavy rain swelled rivers, prompting flood warnings in low-lying parts of Porto along the Douro River estuary. A girl of 10 died when she was hit by a falling tree.
By late last night, some 500,000 people in France were without electricity.