MARSEILLE, France, Dec 4 (AFP) – Parts of southern France were under disaster regulations on Thursday, and a quarter of a million people were told not to drink tap water after floods that took at least five lives and forced widespread evacuations of homes and businesses.
Although there were some signs of water levels abating, the country’s second-biggest city, Marseille, was declared a disaster zone on Wednesday, and winds gusting at up to 150 kilometres (90 miles) per hour continued to lash the region.
However fears that major rivers, and notably the Rhone, could burst their banks and cause even more widespread flooding receded, as weather officials said levels were beginning to drop.
Around a quarter of a million people in the Gard region, around the city of Nimes, were told not to drink tap water because the flooding may have made it too contaminated to drink.
Local authorities issued new warnings for residents to stay at home, and school was cancelled in most areas.
Firefighters in the Herault region meanwhile reported rescuing two people from a tree which they climbed to escape floodwaters after venturing out near the town of Valras.
“As the firefighters are charming folks, they even rescued a horse,” the local government office added.
President Jacques Chirac flew over the region Wednesday and briefly visited a crisis coordination centre to express his support for the 7,000 police, firemen and soldiers deployed, and his sympathy for the victims.
The government announced it was giving EUR 12 million (USD 14 million) in emergency relief for the disaster that has forced more than 9,000 people living close to swollen waterways to leave their homes.
Road and rail traffic in southern France was severely disrupted, with many routes submerged.
Overnight rescue workers had to aid several people who ignored warnings and took to the roads and got caught in floodwaters, officials said.
The reactors in two power plants were shut down on Wednesday because of floating debris in the river that threatened to clog cooling inlets.
The disaster recalled floods last year in the same part of France that killed 24 people. It also tested the reactions of government officials who had been taken to task for their perceived mishandling of an August heatwave that cost the lives of 15,000 mostly elderly people.
“Faced with this new catastrophe, I would first like to think of the victims, of those who have been lost, of those who have been evacuated, to tell them that they can count on the nation’s solidarity right now … and afterwards,” said Chirac.
The president – who was criticised for staying on vacation in Canada during the heatwave – flew in from Paris with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and Environment Minister Roselyne Bachelot and spent nearly an hour in the crisis management centre near Marseille before continuing on to Tunisia for a scheduled state visit.
Sarkozy said “we are currently in a crisis situation” but he assured that “the situation is under control” with extra reinforcements at hand if necessary.
Although local officials said the levels of the Rhone and several other rivers were beginning to fall, there had been new flooding in several areas as dykes gave way.
The Red Cross set up emergency shelters for around 700 evacuees who had nowhere else to turn, and a charity, le Secours Populaire Francais, urged the public to donate to a fund it had set up to help those hit by the disaster.
Subject: French news