Flash floods devastate French towns leaving at least 19 dead
At least 19 people were killed in flash floods that hit the backhills of the French Riviera yesterday and turned streets into rivers of surging muddy water.
There was confusion about how many people were missing in the floods that had washed over the idyllic towns, leaving metres of brown water in their wake, a press officer at the Var region prefecture said.
But it looked likely that at least 12 people remained unaccounted for last night, emergency services said.
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, visiting the region, said the death toll "unfortunately may climb".
The floods swept away cars, trees and parts of houses in a downpour that devastated the picturesque region in the hills behind a portion of the touristy Riviera. Coastal towns where tourists flock, Frejus and Roquebrune, were also hit.
Eleven of the deaths were in the city of Draguignan in the Riviera backhills, half-way between Marseille and Monaco.
Nearly 3,000 rescue workers poured into the region, joining 650 police, the prefecture said. Some dozen helicopters worked overnight Tuesday to evacuate people trapped by floodwaters, which reached about two metres high in some areas.
It is the second time in less than four months that France has coped with major weather-related disasters. On February 28, at least 52 people were killed when a storm named Xynthia swept through French coastal communities on the Atlantic.
Last night, about 1,200 people were in shelters, and tens of thousands were without a phone service, the Var government said, while more than 89,000 people remained without electricity.
The Toulon-Hyeres Airport, closed for several hours, was re-opened but the train line between Toulon and Nice was shut down, the prefecture said.
The flash flooding started on Tuesday evening. Meteo France meteorological service forecast more but lighter rain last night in the popular tourist region.
"We've never seen so much rain in the month of June," said Patrick Galois of the national weather service.
He said some 40cm of rain had fallen in the hardest-hit area of Arcs, near Draguignan. "That corresponds with average rainfall in six months," he said.
French television broadcast images of walls of muddy brown water slamming over stone walls and coursing through city streets.
The flood left cars stacked on one another and ripped the siding off houses.
Residents worked around the clock yesterday to clear mud and water from homes and businesses.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his "first thoughts go out to the victims".
The floods also affected Spanish regions of Galicia and Asturias where a further two people died.