Medieval Carcassonne braced as deadly floods hit south west France

Residents have been told to stay indoors, bridges have been closed and the hospital is partly underwater: Medieval Carcassone was braced on Monday as floodwaters that have claimed 10 lives swept through the fortified city.

Medieval Carcassonne braced as deadly floods hit south west France
Photo: Elizabeth Dale/Claire McGonigle

The region around Carcassonne in the Aude department of south-western France has already been badly hit by flooding overnight on Sunday and morning with the latest death toll standing at 10.

But while residents in neighbouring towns and villages were hoping they had seen the worst there were increasing concerns in the fortified town of Carcassone, which attracts tens of thousands of tourists each year, as the river Aude continued to rise.

Between 160mm and 180mm of rain fell over the town in the early hours of Monday morning.

Images posted on Twitter on Monday showed part of the city's hospital under water.

Although hospital chiefs at the Centre Hospitalier de Carcassonne insisted the building would not be evacuated they did say services had been hit.

“Our information systems have been impacted including telephones. We kindly recommend people to limit calls to Carcassonne hospital and Centre 15 (on duty doctors), unless absolutely necessary,” the hospital said.

The planned surgery schedule and consultations were cancelled at the hospital on Monday however the maternity ward is continuing to admit patients.

“All the hospital staff made a major effort to return to the facility in the shortest possible time, thus minimizing the impact on the care of patients already admitted,” the hospital said, adding that a crisis unit was activated as early as 5 am on Monday and is still operational and following developments as closely as possible.

The hospital said a crisis centre was also set up to treat those suffering from shock.

Claire McGonigle posted an image on Twitter that showed one of the city's restaurant terraces washed away in the flood.

The local authorities in the city were also advising people in parts of the city to stay indoors and stay at high levels.

“The inhabitants of streets around the Paicherou quay and Boulevard Sabatier are encouraged to climb to higher floors,” said the prefecture.

And the flooding was having a major impact on road traffic in the city with all bridges over the River Aude closed to pedestrians and heavy goods vehicles.

“Drivers must take extreme precaution,” the prefecture said.

Elizabeth Dale who is in Carcassonne told The Local on Monday morning: “It's been raining again and police are stationed on bridges and only allowing emergency vehicles to cross.
“It does like the water levels are dropping but who knows what will happen in the next few hours. There are many people like ourselves who are stuck on the wrong side of the river.”
Flash floods swamped a number of towns and villages Carcassonne, leaving a trail of overturned cars, damaged roads and collapsed homes.
An elderly nun was swept to her death as rising waters smashed through a nunnery in the village of Villardonnel to the north of Carcassonne.
Meanwhile, at least four people died overnight in the hard-hit village of Villegailhenc, local authorities said.
Both the French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe were headed to the area on Monday.



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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.”