Flash floods kill 20 in southern France
At least 20 people have died in floods in southern France, officials said late Wednesday, and there were fears the toll could rise as rescue workers kept up the search for the missing.
Helicopters airlifted survivors, sometimes from the roofs of their homes, in the wake of the heavy storms that triggered the flash floods in the Draguignan area near the Mediterranean coast.
Nearly 2,000 rescue workers were rushed in to help hundreds trapped in their vehicles, houses or on rooftops.
Emergency teams also moved 436 inmates from a flooded prison in Draguignan where the water covered the first two floors, transferring them to nearby jails.
"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.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said he would visit the area early next week.
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."
Meteorologists stressed the exceptional nature of the flooding, which they said were the worst there since 1827. Police meanwhile warned people not to try to take out their cars because more bad weather was expected.
And the grim search for the missing continued.
"We are looking for people, we check that there is nothing under the remains of the cars," said the deputy prefect for Draguignan, Corinne Orzechowski.
Heavy rains on Tuesday caused water levels to rise swiftly, 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 seaside resort 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 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.
SNCF rail authority halted train service between Toulon and Nice until Friday, and several other secondary routes were impassable.
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.
© 2010 AFP