Storm claims 19 lives

26th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Most of the deaths were in Spain, where four children died near Barcelona when the roof and a wall of a sports hall were brought down on their heads by winds that in some places reached more than 180 kilometres an hour.

Bordeaux -- French and Spanish rescuers battled Sunday to reopen roads and railways, douse forest fires and restore power to nearly a million homes left in the dark by hurricane-force winds that killed 19 people.

"The priority today is to re-establish the electricity as quickly as possible," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy as he visited a town in the southwestern region that bore the brunt of Saturday's storm.

Most of the deaths were in Spain, where four children died near Barcelona when the roof and a wall of a sports hall were brought down on their heads by winds that in some places reached more than 180 kilometres (110 miles) an hour.

They were playing baseball outside the centre in Sant Boi de Llobregat as the storm -- which saw 20-metre (70-foot) high waves battering the Atlantic coast -- gathered force and they ran inside to shelter.

Witnesses said they heard a loud sound, then saw that the roof and part of a wall had crumpled.

"The entire population is shocked by this tragedy," Jaume Bosch, the mayor of the town, said on the municipal website, while one parent whose son narrowly escaped the collapse described the scene at the gym as "horrific."

The storm was one of the fiercest to hit Western Europe in a decade.

It blew in eastwards from the Atlantic Ocean, barrelling across southwest France and northern Spain -- ripping roofs off houses, pulling down power lines and flattening hundreds of thousands of trees.

On Sunday it was battering Italy, where a young woman was swept away to her death by a wave as she was walking on a beach near the southern city of Naples.

The winds had lost some of their force but were strong enough to destroy a restaurant in Imperia on the Mediterranean coast and to force some Italian ferry operators to cancel their sailings.

Two drivers were killed by falling trees Saturday in the Landes department of France, while a 78-year-old was killed by flying debris outside his home. A 73-year-old women died in the Gironde department when power cuts halted her breathing machine.

A further two deaths were the indirect result of the storm. An elderly couple died Sunday from inhaling carbon monoxide from an electricity generator they had set up in a badly ventilated room, health officials said.

Besides the victims in the sports hall, eight other deaths were reported in various locations across Spain.

The incidents included a woman who was crushed by a wall, another who died after a door lifted by the wind slammed into her, and a police sergeant killed by a falling tree as he was directing traffic.

Hundreds of Spanish firefighters -- backed up by 14 planes and helicopters -- were Sunday battling three separate forest fires sparked by electricity pylons brought down by the tempest.

Sarkozy said the French response to the storm had been better than back in 1999 when a tempest killed dozens and uprooted millions of trees.

There was "much more resourcefulness, fewer victims, more efficiency," said the president, who brought with him to the region several government ministers as well as the heads of the EDF power company and the SNCF state rail operator.

Sarkozy said he had asked the army to help the operation to bring services back to normal.

A dozen helicopters flew over the storm-struck zone in France to locate damaged power lines and direct a thousand workers deployed from electricity grid operator ERDF's rapid intervention team to restore power to the 800,000 homes still in the dark at nightfall on Sunday.

Technicians flown in from Germany, Britain and Portugal were also working in the operation, ERDF said.

Hundreds of generators were being delivered to old people's homes and other priority sites to tide them over until power returned after the storm.

Many rail routes were still cut on Sunday but the main Bordeaux-Paris line was running again. The SNCF said it had around 1,000 workers removing trees from rail lines and repairing overhead cables.

Much of the Gironde and Landes regions have key forestry industries but huge areas were flattened by the storm, officials said, adding that more than half of the trees in the area appeared to have fallen.

"It is a catastrophe for tree growers," said Eric Dumontet, of the main regional forestry union.

Phone operator France Telecom said its technicians were trying to restore service to its 350,000 fixed line and mobile clients cut off by the storm.

Flights were halted throughout the storm region and ski resorts in the Pyrenees were closed due to the risk of avalanches.

The strong winds were also felt across the Mediterranean, with two people killed in the eastern Algerian town of Setif when the wall of a house collapsed, civil protection forces said.


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