Flash floods kill 19 in southern France
Rescuers airlifted survivors and searched for missing people in southern France Wednesday after heavy storms triggered flash floods that killed at least 19 people, officials said.
Nearly 2,000 rescue workers rushed in to help hundreds trapped in their vehicles, houses or on rooftops in the Draguignan area near the Mediterranean coast, while helicopters were sent in to airlift residents to safety.
Emergency teams also moved 436 inmates from a flooded prison in Draguignan where the water covered the first two floors and they were taken to nearby jails.
The death toll has climbed since early morning as rescuers found the bodies of more victims. State authorities in the Var department said earlier that 15 people had died and 12 were missing.
"I fear the (death) toll will go higher," said Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, who visited the area to see for himself the extent of the damage by the floods that meteorologists said were the worst there since 1827.
Police warned people not to try to take out their cars because more bad weather was expected.
Heavy rains on Tuesday caused water levels to rise swiftly in the area, preventing many people from fleeing to higher ground and forcing some to seek shelter on the roofs of their homes.
Around 1,850 firefighters, soldiers and police officers and 11 helicopters have been mobilised, officials said, adding that 1,500 calls for help had been received.
The disaster reached the popular tourist town of Frejus where more than 1,500 people were taken to safety, many in inflatable boats or by helicopter airlift to four shelters.
Up to 200,000 homes were left without electricity during the rainstorms and by late Wednesday afternoon power had been restored to only around half of those, officials said.
The rising waters also trapped a high speed train travelling from Nice to Lille with 300 passengers on board.
The SNCF rail authority halted all train services between Toulon and Saint-Raphael until Thursday, saying some three kilometres (1.8 miles) of tracks were under water.
President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement expressing condolences for the victims' families and support for rescue teams who are "mobilising non-stop to provide aid and find those still missing."
The head of the emergency operation, Corinne Orzechowski, said more than 30 centimetres (12 inches) of rain had fallen since Tuesday, causing water levels to rise to alarming levels in the streets of Draguignan, a town of some 40,000 residents.
"This morning, we woke up to find a city that was devastated, extremely battered with overturned cars floating in the streets, collapsed roads and gutted houses," said Orzechowski.
"We are still in the rescue phase before moving on to the cleanup," she said, adding that makeshift shelters were opened to welcome families left homeless by the floods.
Water levels on Wednesday had dropped slightly in Draguignan but rains were still battering the nearby towns of Roquebrune and Frejus, not far from the Riviera resort of Saint-Tropez, officials said.
In the village of Les Arcs, long-time resident Gerard Grangeon went searching for his sister-in-law's car which he found floating in the streets. "It's a real disaster," he said.
© 2010 AFP