Flash floods leave 11 dead in southern France

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Eleven people died in southern France after torrential rains triggered flash floods that overturned cars and sent residents scurrying to safety on rooftops, officials said Wednesday.

Rescuers scrambled overnight to help hundreds of people trapped in their vehicles, houses or on rooftops, in the Draguignan area off the Mediterranean coast, while helicopters were sent in to airlift residents to safety.

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.

State authorities in the Var department said 11 people had died and two were missing, raising the toll from 10 dead and four missing.

"We haven't seen anything like this in a decade," said the top official for the Var department, Hugues Parant.

Up to 200,000 homes were without electricity and 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 completely flooded.

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.

More than 1,000 people were involved in the emergency effort, backed by nine helicopters and 15 boats, she said.

"We are still in the rescue phase before moving on to the cleanup," she said, adding than makeshift shelters were opened to welcome about 1,200 people 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.

On Tuesday, emergency services had to let the body of a woman float away because the currents were too strong to attempt a recovery.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux was due to visit the devastated area later Wednesday.

© 2010 AFP

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