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Storm Eleanor barrels through Europe

Winter storm Eleanor swept across Europe on Wednesday, bringing death, damage and disruption, snarling transport and cutting power to tens of thousands of people.

Two people died on Spain’s northern Basque coast, the couple swept away by a huge wave, security officials said, adding one person had to be rescued after attempting to save the victims.

In France, a 21-year-old skier was earlier killed by a falling tree at Morillon in the Alps where dangerous conditions forced the closure of several ski resorts.

Fifteen others were injured by the storm across France, four seriously, civil defence spokesman Michael Bernier told AFP as the country was lashed by what meteorologists termed the strongest winds in eight years.

Austria’s Tyrol region meanwhile issued a level four alert on a scale of five for some areas as conditions worsened.

At La Lenk in central Switzerland, eight people were hurt when a violent gust of wind overturned a railway carriage while one person was injured by a falling tree in the southern Dutch village of Heesch.

Heavy winds forced authorities to close the airports in Strasbourg and Basel-Mulhouse on France’s border with Germany and Switzerland before they were reopened shortly after midday.

At Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, where gusts of up to 134 kilometres per hour (83 mph) were recorded, 60 percent of departures were delayed Wednesday morning, as were a third of arrivals. A handful of flights had to be rerouted before the winds eased back slightly.

The winds wrought havoc with train services and motorway access in several French regions, the result of fallen trees, cable lines and other objects.

About 225,000 homes across France were without electricity, while “particularly intense” flooding was expected on the Atlantic coasts.

The Eiffel Tower, which had to turn away tourists in the morning because of the gusts, reopened at 3:30 pm (1430 GMT), though access to the top deck remained off-limits as required when winds exceed 80 kph.

– ‘Woken people up’ –

Eleanor barrelled into continental Europe after whipping across England, Northern Ireland and Ireland, with the Thames Barrier, one of the largest movable flood barriers in the world, closed as a precautionary measure to protect London from swelling tides.

“We have seen some heavy showers push through across the south of the UK along with hail, loud thunder and lightning, which has woken people up,” said meteorologist Becky Mitchell.

Gusts of 160 kph (100 mph) were recorded at Great Dun Fell in Westmorland, northwest England, while overturned vehicles and trees caused closures of major motorways.

In Ireland, power supply company ESB said electricity had been restored to 123,000 customers, while 27,000 remained without power.

Streets around the docks in Galway on the west coast were flooded after high tides breached the sea defences, prompting the deployment of about two dozen troops to support flood defence efforts.

– Flooding and flight delays –

Belgium and parts of Spain were also put on “orange” alert, the third of four warning levels, with officials urging people to exercise caution when venturing out.

In the Netherlands, 252 of about 1,200 flights were cancelled at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, a key European hub, as weather alerts were issued for several regions.

Dutch authorities for the first time closed all five of the five storm surge barriers on the country’s North Sea coast, the transport ministry said, as winds surpassed 110 kph, although one was later re-opened.

Flights were also disrupted at Frankfurt’s airport in Germany, where the storm has been baptised Burglind, and at Zurich airport, as Swiss officials urged hikers to avoid forest walks.

RTS television reported that about 14,000 homes were without power in several Swiss cantons.

Most ski resorts in the Swiss and northern French Alps were closed, with average gusts of 150 kph but which had reached 250 kph at France’s Les Arcs resort.

“You’re better off staying in front of the fire today,” said David Ponson, a ski official in Savoie.

Eleanor is the fourth major storm to hit Europe since December.

The storm is now heading for the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, where meteorologists are warning of violent gusts that could reach 200 kph.