Floods LATEST: Clean-up begins in south western France as anger rises

The Aude department of south western France remained on red alert on Tuesday the day after 11 people were confirmed dead after devastating floods ravaged the region around Carcassonne. Three people are still missing.

Floods LATEST: Clean-up begins in south western France as anger rises
Firefighters rescue people in Trebes, where six people died. Photo: AFP

The clean up operation was underway in the Aude department on Tuesday a day after flood waters claimed the lives of at least 11 people.

With three people still reported missing the death toll could rise to 14.

Schools remained closed across the department, which was still on red alert – the highest weather warning – with several parts of the department still considered dangerous due to the flood waters.

The department will remain on red alert until Wednesday when it is hoped the flood waters will have sufficiently receded.

Red alert means the public are advised to avoid travelling and take extreme precaution. Authorities in the Aude warned motorists not to risk driving on submerged roads and told people to avoid drinking tap water.

Vigicrues, the government organisation that monitors floods said it was still possible rivers could burst their banks and that road and rail travel could be complicated given the number of roads blocked.

Some 1,500 homes remained without power on Tuesday morning while on Monday evening some 10,000 homes were without drinking water.

The Red Cross has launched an appeal for donations to help them deal with the “considerable damage”.

“From the very beginning, the teams of the Aude Red Cross and neighboring departments have mobilized to ensure their missions of support to the local population,” a statement from the Red Cross said.

The town of Trebes (see below) was hit particularly hard by the floods overnight on Sunday with at least six residents known to have died.

The town was also hit by tragedy in March when a jihadist went on a murderous rampage that included shooting dead two people at a supermarket in Trebes before being killed by police.

Reports in France said one woman who lost her husband in the terror attack also lost both her parents in the weekend's floods.

As well as the six victims in Trebes, two people died in the village of Villegailhenc, one in Villardonnel, one in Vallalier and one in Carcassonne.

Residents in the region have expressed anger over what they see as a failure on the part of local authorities and police to warn people as the flood waters were rising on Sunday night.

The Aude department was only placed on red alert (Vigiliance Rouge) at 6am on Monday morning when the heaviest rains had already passed and rivers had burst heir banks.

One resident of Trebes, whose house was flooded, showed his anger during a visit by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Monday evening asking why weren't people warned in advance.

“There was a moment when you have to say 'OK this could be dangerous',” he said.

“Can no one keep an eye on the River Aude and send the firefighters into the street to tell people 'Get out of your homes, we are evacuating you'?. Could no one do that?”

The mayor Trebes Eric Ménassi responded: “The tragedy that we have been through was impossible to predict and overwhelming.”

“We were on the ground with my team since midnight. The heavy rain came at around 2am in a way that as sudden and extreme.”

PM Philippe said the extreme weather was “unpredictable” and said all the local services were mobilised to deal with the tragedy.

The storms were triggered when a front of warm and humid air from the Mediterranean Sea slammed into colder air around the Massif Central mountain range, inundating an area from the eastern Pyrenees to Aveyron further north. 

This well-known weather pattern occurs three to six times a year in the region and nearly always triggers flash flooding.

But the French weather forecasting service, Meteo France, suggested these episodes had recently become more frequent and more severe.

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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.”