A massive clean-up is under way in the French pilgrimage town of Lourdes, famed for its Catholic sanctuaries, after flash floods forced the evacuation of up to 450 pilgrims and closed the main shrine.
The waters from days of nonstop rain in the region had begun to recede but the main places of worship remained closed to the public as firefighters pumped out water from a grotto and the basements of several hotels.
The cave, where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, remained flooded on Sunday, with debris like bits of wood, candles and branches floating on the surface.
An estimated six million pilgrims visit the shrine every year, drawn by its spring waters which the devout believe can heal and even work miracles.
The famous French grotto, where pilgrims go to drink spring waters reputed for their healing powers, was at one stage under 1.5 metres of flooding and some of those affected had to be accommodated in the foyer of a local cinema.
Rescue teams helped hundreds of pilgrims escape waterlogged hotels after heavy rains led the Gave River to overrun its banks -- and even wash up into the town's famed grotto.
The regional government issued a statement saying hundreds of people had been evacuated from hotels.
The Red Cross and regional authorities provided food and shelter to the escapees, as authorities warned of forecasts for more rain.
Visits to the grotto were temporarily suspended.
The shrine has special meaning for the suffering, many of whom believe its spring water can heal and even work miracles.
Thierry Castillo, director of the nearby Lourdes sanctuary, said visitors had shown "understanding" and predicted that the grotto would remain closed at least until today.
Dublin-based travel agent Rory McDwyer, who was with a group of 22 people attached to Whitehall Choir, said that some of the pilgrims were allowed rest at a hospital in the town in southwestern France.
"The river was up to the level of the wall -- it was frightening,'' he said.
A spokesman for Joe Walsh Tours said another group of 43 Irish people had to be evacuated from their hotel when their electricity had to be turned off because of safety concerns.
Meanwhile, a group of 50 Irish pilgrims flew home yesterday as more heavy rain was forecast.