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Extreme weather

11 dead in France flooding, as three months of rain falls in one night

The deluge hit the southwest region of Carcasonne, bursting river banks

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2018, 6:29am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2018, 6:29am

At least 11 people died when violent rainstorms turned rivers into raging torrents in southwest France on Monday, prompting some of the deadliest flooding in years, officials said.

The equivalent of three months rainfall was dumped overnight in the region of Carcassonne in just a few hours, sending rivers over their banks, including the Aude, which reached levels not seen in 100 years.

Local authorities in the Aude department said 11 people were killed, a second reduction in the official toll which had earlier stood at 13, a figure given by the interior ministry.

Two people were still missing with eight others seriously injured, authorities added.

President Emmanuel Macron, whose office said he will soon visit the affected areas, offered “the sympathy and solidarity of the entire nation for the victims of the Aude flooding and their families.”

The rescue operations appear to have delayed an expected announcement on a government reshuffle, triggered by the sudden resignation of interior minister Gerard Collomb nearly two weeks ago.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who is acting as interim interior minister, said the government would ask insurers to process disaster claims and payments “as quickly as possible” while he assessed the damage in the region.

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One of the overnight victims was an 88-year-old nun who was swept from her room by floodwaters at the Burning Bush priory in the village of Villardonnel, north of the fortress city of Carcassonne.

“The water crashed through the building’s main door and on through the door to her room, the lowest in the convent,” said Sister Irene, the mother superior.

Elsewhere, flash floods overturned cars, gutted streets and battered buildings and bridges, especially to the north of Carcassonne where authorities ordered bridges closed.

The Aude’s levels were expected to peak late Monday evening. Evacuations were still being carried out in several towns in the afternoon, local authorities said.

“There’s water everywhere in the house. Everything is flooded,” Helene Segura said by telephone from the hard-hit village of Villegailhenc, where at least one small bridge had collapsed.

“Rescue teams were deployed as quickly as possible, but operations have proved to be complicated,” said interior ministry spokesman Frederic de Lanouvelle.

In the town of Trebes, near Carcassonne, the Aude rose eight metres in just five hours, officials said.

According to the latest toll figures from the regional authorities, a total of six people died in Trebes.

Two elderly residents died overnight in Villegailhenc, where the main bridge collapsed, and one person was killed in Villalier.

On Monday evening the body of another victim was found in Carcassonne making this one of the deadliest storms in France for a decade.

With many roads impassable, helicopters were used in the rescue operations.

Around 1,000 people were evacuated from the area of Pezens, also near Carcassonne, amid fears that a nearby dam could burst, and thousands of homes throughout the area were without electricity after strong winds brought down power lines.

The storms were triggered when a front of warm and humid air from the Mediterranean Sea slammed into colder air around the Massif Central mountain range, inundating an area from the eastern Pyrenees to Aveyron further north.

This well-known weather pattern occurs three to six times a year in the region and nearly always triggers flash flooding.

But the French weather forecasting service, Meteo France, suggested these episodes had recently become more frequent and more severe.