Eyes on Paris but other areas bear brunt of floods in France

While most of the focus has been on the relentless rise of the River Seine in Paris the main devastation caused by the flooding has been outside the capital.

Eyes on Paris but other areas bear brunt of floods in France
Residents in Longjumeau feel abandoned. Photo: AFP

The Louvre may be evacuating artworks and tourist cruises may have been suspended but the French capital should be largely spared the kind of damage that has occurred in areas outside Paris.

While it could take a so-called “flood of the century” to really cause a catastrophe in Paris, the flood defenses of towns outside the capital are less fortified and as result the water has poured in.

The départements of Loiret and Seine-et-Marne to the south and south east of Paris have been two of the worst hit areas with the floodwaters rising to higher levels than in the great flood of 1910. It is here where the government are likely to declare states of “natural disaster” rather than Paris, unless the waters keep rising that is.

Residents in the département of Yvelines to the west of Paris are now fearing the worst.

As well as residents who have seen their homes submerged, France's long suffering farmers have also seen their fields disappear under flood water. They too will be left counting the high cost of the floods.

On Friday they called on the state to make finances available to compensate farmers whose crops have been ruined.

The centres of towns like Longjumeau, Montargis and Nemours to the south of Paris have all been left submerged in murky flood waters and were only navigable by boat.

Many smaller towns and communities have been left without drinking water, with officials having to distribute cases of bottled mineral water instead. 

Shops and businesses have been wrecked and thousands of families have had to abandon their homes and sleep in sports centres. 

In Longjumeau, 25km to the south of Paris, some residents there who have seen their homes inundated have felt abandoned while attention switches to the capital, further downstream.

(A resident is taken out of her home in Longjumeau by firefighters. Photo: AFP)

“We were not helped at all, I feel totally abandoned. The only firefighter we passed told us: ‘they want to protect Paris’, but what about us?” a resident told L’Express magazine.

As if hearing their call the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was scheduled to visit Longjumeau on Friday, where water levels hit 1.5 metres.

Some residents have refused to leave their homes with the local mayor warning that thieves had been taking advantage of the chaos to pilfer belongings from homes.

A local authority chief said the crisis in the area would continue and that around 5,000 had been hit by floods as well as power cuts.

In Nemours, where over a third of the 13,000 residents had to be evacuated after the River Loing burst its banks, locals talk of a pungent smell of petrol that has left the town centre smelling like a fuel station.

“I have lived here for 60 years and I have never seen anything like this,” said one resident of Nemours. 

“The centre of town is totally under water, all the shops are destroyed.”

PM Valls described the situation in Nemours as tense and difficult.

Residents in the flooded Nemours, north of Paris. Photo: AFP

(People pump water out their flooded house in the city of Orleans. AFP)

In Montargis, rubbish bags, placed outside by residents before the flood waters came, float through the centre of the town along with stock from the local shops. The water levels rose so high that only the tops of cars could be seen.

Across the areas of central France worst hit by flooding, firefighters have been called out over 10,000 times and tens of thousands of homes have been left without power.

Recognising the scale of the devastation in parts of central France, President François Hollande declared that a state of “natural disaster” would be declared in those affected areas in coming days, meaning residents would be covered by insurance and local authorities can seek state financial aid in the clear up.

On Thursday a man on horseback died after he was swept away in a river in Evry-Gregy-sur-Yerre, southeast of Paris and France’s environment minister Ségolene Royal said more victims of the floods may be discovered when water levels drop.

“Rebuilding work in those areas hit by flooding will be a slow process,” the minister warned.

As the flood waters are expected to drop throughout the weekend the clean-up will begin in earnest as will the insurance form filling.

Back in Paris officials at the Louvre should be able to move their artworks back down stairs at some point next week but it will be a while before residents can return to normal in those towns outside Paris.

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Is the French Riviera better equipped to avoid more deadly floods?

Exactly a year after devastating storm killed 10 people the Mediterranean coast of southern France is once again being hit by torrential rain and floods. But has anything improved to avoid more disaster and death?

Is the French Riviera better equipped to avoid more deadly floods?
Storm Alex battered Nice, but the city got away relatively lightly. Photo: ValeryHache / AFP

On October 2nd, 2020, Storm Alex dumped more than 500mm of rain on parts of the Alpes-Maritimes department of southeast France in a matter of hours.

That’s the equivalent of half-a-tonne of rain per square metre over the 10-hour period that the storm battered the area.

Ten people died and dozens of homes were washed away – as were bridges and businesses – as almost a year’s worth of rain caused flash floods and mudslides in the Vésubie, Roya and Tinée valleys, turning the usually gentle rivers into devastating torrents.

Alex and its aftermath was termed a ‘once in a generation’ flood but it was, in fact, the second ‘generational’ weather event in less than a month along the Mediterranean arc, after floods hit the Gard in mid-September. 

In November and then again in December 2019, Cannes and its surroundings were partially inundated. Four years before that, on the night of October 3rd and 4th, 2015, an épisode méditerranéen in an area stretching from Mandelieu to Antibes left 20 dead.

The aftermath of violent storms and floods in Biot, southeastern France, on October 4, 2015. Photo: Jean Christophe Magnenet / AFP

Today, three in five people in France are at risk of a climate-linked natural disaster such as flooding, fire or ground movement – and the risk is worsening.

Global warming has seen disasters double in 20 years, according to United Nations’ figures, while major events – categorised as those that result in 10 or more deaths or €30million in damage – have quadrupled in France over the same period.

This week southern France is once again being hit by a deluge that has forced schools to close and authorities to warn people to stay at home.

Now, residents in areas repeatedly hit by floods in the Alpes-Maritimes are demanding public authorities work to protect them from a threat that hangs over their heads every autumn when weather conditions subject the area around the Mediterranean to unique pressures. 

As global warming increases sea temperatures, so-called épisodes méditerranéens are becoming more intense and more frequent. The Côte d’Azur has no choice but to adapt. So what – if anything – is happening?

Reconstruction work along the Roya river 10 months after Storm Alex devastated the area in October 2020. Photo: Valery Hache / AFP

Property owners who decide to stay are choosing to protect and adapt their homes to the annual threat of floods. One told France Info  radio recently that she recalled being told as a child that furniture in a family friend’s home would be taken through a large trapdoor in the ceiling of a family friend’s home into the roofspace when the nearby river was in flood.

“People lived with the risk,” she said. “You can’t stop water with a wall. It falls from the sky.”

It’s a sentiment that officials are embracing. Valérie Emphoux, director of the flood prevention department of the Sophia-Antipolis agglomeration said: “We must adopt the flooding spirit.”

Those who live near water have to accept flooding as part of life, she added, ‘even if it means seeing it sometimes flow through the garden’.

Meanwhile, authorities routinely write to homeowners whose properties have boundaries with waterways, urging them to take down walls, or other impediments to natural water flow, while also urging those whose properties are crossed by waterways to maintain them properly.

Town planners must also bear part of the blame for the worsening effects of flash floods in an area well used to them. The demand for property in the southeast of the country has prompted a wave of building work.

Tony Damiano, of Avenir 06, which works to promote natural heritage in the department said. “In the last 10 years alone, it’s got worse in terms of urbanisation. The attraction of the Côte d’Azur, the sea, the aura of the area… Prices have increased considerably and all this brings in people for whom the protection of nature is not a priority. It has been sold to the highest bidder.”

In fact, human developments along the PACA coast since the 1960s has done nothing to help the natural flow of rivers to the sea. Roads, railways and buildings – many with underground car parks – block water unnaturally, giving rising waters nowhere else to go than the streets at times of heavy rain.

But it’s not all bad news. The floods of 2015 have prompted action. Where 26 houses once stoodin the hamlet of La Brague, near badly affected Biot, a €10million project will widen the riverbed as part of a ‘rewilding’ of the site to allow the river to flood naturally and safely.

An earlier, similar project, dating back to 2011, had an impact in 2015. The banks of La Brague river were widened and deepened. It helped lower river levels upstream by as much as 50cm. 

Meanwhile, in Cannes-Lerins, €20million has been allocated since 2016 to develop sustainable flood prevention systems. Some 40 homes have been demolished to create a basin to slow down the river. 

“The objective is to slow down floods,” town councillor Michel Tani said.  “Every minute gained allows us to make property and people safe. When the weather is bad, gaining 10 minutes is vital.”