State of disaster looms as floods devastate pilgrimage town of Lourdes

Paris to pledge state aid for French pilgrimage site after floods kill 3 and cause major damage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 June, 2013, 3:49am


France plans to declare a state of disaster after floods claimed three lives and devastated the Christian pilgrimage site of Lourdes.

Fears that the town could be closed for months receded with the waters on Thursday, with church officials insisting its celebrated grotto would be accessible within days.

But other sites, including the underground basilica, face a lengthy clean-up operation after the Gave de Pau, the river that flows through the town, burst its banks for the second time in less than a year.

French President Francois Hollande pledged his support, declaring "the state is there" for Lourdes on a visit to the town where he met residents who had been flooded out.

Thousands of tourists have had to be evacuated from their inundated hotels and visits to the grotto, basilica and other religious sites have been suspended since Tuesday.

"As the water has begun to recede, we are discovering bit by bit the extent of the damage," said Mathias Terrier, a spokesman for the Lourdes sanctuaries, acknowledging that it could be months before some of them reopen.

Lourdes is visited by six million people every year, with the numbers in July and August reaching a peak of up to 40,000 a day.

Many of the visitors are severely ill or handicapped, drawn to the town by the belief that its waters have curative powers.

The Catholic Church recognises 68 miracles linked to a town where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a local peasant girl in 1858.

Flooding last October cost an estimated €1.3 million (HK$13.3 million) in damage but the clean-up operation this time would be significantly more expensive, according to Thierry Castillo, who is in charge of the Lourdes diocese's economic affairs. "We will need the support of everyone," he said.

Although the level of the river had receded significantly, buildings that were not still under water were covered in mud, making it impossible to estimate the full extent of the damage.

Fire crews were pumping three metres of water out of the Basilica of St Pius X, an underground church with the capacity to welcome 25,000 pilgrims, which escaped the October flood.

The surface of the road between the river and the Church of St Bernadette had been damaged by the waters to the extent that the foundations of the church were clearly visible.

The death toll from the flooding in the southwest of the country rose to three when a woman, 54, was found drowned in her car in a flooded wheat field, 100 metres from a road that had been closed to traffic on safety grounds. Two elderly people were swept to their deaths in nearby villages earlier this week.

The flooding in the southwest has largely been the result of a sudden rise in temperatures in the Pyrenees, where cold weather had kept snow on the ground much later than is normal after record falls over the winter.

Other parts of France have been hit by torrential rain or hail which have caused significant damage to some crops, notably vines in the area of the Loire valley where Vouvray sparkling wine is made.

Xavier Beulin, the president of farmers' organisation FNSEA, estimated the damage at up to €500 million.

"It could be as high as that because there are nearly 300,000 hectares that have been destroyed," Beulin said.