Irish among hundreds of evacuated pilgrims
Red Cross called in as Catholic shrine town of Lourdes is flooded
IRISH pilgrims were among hundreds evacuated from hotels threatened by flood- waters after a rain-swollen river broke its banks in the Catholic shrine town of Lourdes yesterday.
The French Red Cross, rescue services and police moved around 500 pilgrims to higher ground and into refugee centres, while the famous grotto itself was under 1.5 metres of water at one stage.
Rory McDyer, of Rory McDyer Travel in Clontarf, Dublin, was with a group of 32 people from the Whitehall Choir when they were evacuated from their hotel yesterday.
He said the evacuation was well organised but the whole area was flooded.
"The river was up to the level of the wall. It was frightening," he said.
Mr McDyer, a director of the choir, said there were also other Irish people visiting Lourdes but noted that it was the end of the season.
His group, whose ages range from mid-20s to mid-80s, were in good spirits and everyone was fine, he said.
The group, which had initially been accommodated in the foyer of a local cinema, moved last night to rest at a local hospital, which Mr McDyer described as "bright and modern.
He said: "It's obviously not ideal but we're making the best of a bad situation. If we weren't here, it would have been a case of camp beds at the town hall."
Other hotel guests had to be rescued by boat.
Mr McDyer said he had insisted that the tourists move to higher ground, adding "I have never seen rain like it."
His only criticism of the way the French authorities responded was that he felt the evacuation should have been ordered on Friday night as the river was already very swollen at that stage.
The group was due to fly home to Ireland today from Toulouse.
Another member of the Whitehall group, Nicky Beades, said the power was out in their hotel, with more torrential rain and further flooding forecast.
He praised Joe Walsh Tours for its service and said people were in good form.
"We're the Irish, who have been all over the world with the soccer, and we're looking after each other."
Speaking yesterday, Mr Beades said it was like a soft Irish day, with drizzle coming down, and the flood was receding. The water level, which had been up to the doors of a car near their hotel, had dropped to its wheels.
Mr Beades said he had been told that such heavy rain and flooding only occurred every 20 years or so.
A group of disabled Scottish people, who had spent 28 hours on a bus getting to Lourdes, had to be evacuated from their hotel.
A spokeswoman for Joe Walsh Tours said another group of 43 Irish people had been evacuated from the same hotel as the electricity had been turned off in the building for safety reasons.
They were being accommodated by the Red Cross along with a group of 400 Italians.
A second group of 50 Irish pilgrims flew home yesterday. The floods were receding but more heavy rain was forecast.
A spokesman for the Lourdes sanctuary confirmed that the grotto itself was under 1.5 metres of water as a result of the Gave de Pau River overflowing its banks.
Visits to the shrine were temporarily suspended.