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FLOODS

France declares 782 ‘disaster’ zones, but what does it mean?

France has just declared a state of "natural disaster" for 782 towns and villages hit by floods. But what does that mean in reality?

France declares 782 'disaster' zones, but what does it mean?
Photo: AFP

Some 782 towns and villages across France were officially recognised as “natural disaster” zones on Wednesday after last week's devastating floods.

But what does that status actually mean in reality for the hundreds of flood-hit communities? 

How does the law work?

The state of natural disaster is a special procedure set up in 1982 so the victims of exceptional natural events can be adequately compensated for damage to property.

Essentially once a zone is declared a natural disaster, victims can claim from a pot of funds created by all insurers. If the zone is not declared a disaster the, insurance companies are under no obligation to pay out.

The procedure means that the government will evaluate each area and deem whether it qualifies for the status of “natural disaster”. In the case of the 2016 flooding the number of communes recognised was 782, across 16 départements.

What counts as a natural disaster?  

A natural disaster includes floods, mudslides, wildfires, droughts, severe damage from storms, avalanches and earthquakes.

In mainland France, almost any natural disaster you can think of would be covered by this act, except for high winds, which are included in a specific “storm warranty”. 

What is insured?

Under a “state of natural disaster” residents are covered for all those goods and property that are directly damaged by the phenomenon, in this case floods.

It applies to residential or commercial buildings, furniture, vehicles and work equipment that are already covered by insurance policies.

Homes for example, must be already covered by a multi-risk insurance policy for the status of “natural disaster to count.

Caps are placed on the excesses that victims have to pay: €380 for private claimants for professionals it stands at 10 percent of the overall claim with a minimum of €1,140. 

Vehicles would also need to be covered by a full policy, not just third party insurance.

Damage to soil, livestock and crops that were yet to be harvested fall under the agricultural disasters scheme and so are also excluded in this case.

 

Photo: AFP

The government’s role  

The government has the right to decree a state of natural disaster as of June 23rd 2014 in order to speed up the compensation of victims of “extraordinary nature of events”.

This is what happened on Wednesday after a cabinet meeting.

Has the government decreed a state of natural disaster before?

Yes, the government has already used its right to declare a state of natural disaster several times before, including in October 2015 after deadly floods in the Aples-Maritimes region.  

Local authorities’ role

To declare a “state of natural disaster” in a specific town, the town's mayor must send a request to the regional authority, who will forward it to the Interdepartmental Commission of natural disasters. If the request is accepted, the Interior and Financial Ministries will jointly pass the order.  

What steps should you take if you’ve been affected?

Those affected by floods have ten days starting from when the decree is passed to send their claim to their insurer by post. If possible, they should accompany it with evidence of damage. That could include photos and invoices for objects that have been damaged.

Specific details, such as the number of broken tiles or the height the water reached in each room, could also be helpful.  

Insurers then have two months to pay the first part of compensation, and three months to fully recompense the victims. The insurer can also send an expert to estimate the damage. 

What if my town is not officially classified as in a state of natural disaster?

If your town is not legally in a state of “natural disaster”, you’ll have to follow different procedures. You should call your insurance directly to find out if your possessions are covered in case of storms or bad weather. If this is not the case, the expenses will be your responsibility. 

by Marianna Spring

 

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WEATHER

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.”

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