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Tuesday, March 2

France hit by double whammy of Cyclone Xynthia and government unreadiness for flooding in Vendee and Charente-Maritime regions

"We need to ask how, in France, in the 21st century, families can be surprised in their sleep, die drowned in their home." - French President Nicolas Sarkozy

As of last night there are 62 confirmed deaths associated with Xynthia, which tore through several European countries over the weekend, including Germany, Portugal, Belgium and Spain. But in France, where the majority of deaths occurred, many victims drowned in their homes, surprised by surging waters that punched through inadequqte sea walls. Flooding has rendered swaths of western France uninhabitable, including an area between La Rochelle and L' Aiguillon-sur-Mer.

Yet experts warned for years about the risks posed by France's antiquated coastal dams. Add to this, warnings about Xynthia were inadequate. Below, two reports fill in the picture and if it looks vaguely familiar to American readers, think back to 2005:

The ABC TV news crew and millions of other Americans had gone to sleep that night nearly sick with relief that New Orleans (Nola) had dodged the bullet: Hurricane Katrina had veered before it struck, sparing the city the worst, and the levees had held. The streets in the hotel district were dry as a bone.

The next morning, in the pre-dawn, the ABC crew stepped out of their hotel. A look of confusion followed by horror crossed Brian Williams's face. Water was rushing down the street. That could only mean Nola's inadequate levees had been breached somewhere....

You'd think the French had taken lessons from what inadequate levees coupled with inadequate warnings and evacuation procedures had done to New Orleans. Clearly not:
Atlantic storm Xynthia kills dozens in Western Europe

In France, many victims drowned in their homes, surprised by surging waters that bashed through aged sea walls. Sarkozy calls for an investigation into warnings and orders repair of the dikes.

By Devorah Lauter, March 1, 2010, 5:06 p.m. PST
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Paris - Rescue workers continued to search Monday for victims of a powerful weekend storm that combined with high spring tides to batter France's Atlantic coast, killing at least 62 people in Western Europe.

By Monday evening 51 deaths had been reported in France. Most of the victims drowned in their homes early Sunday morning, officials said. At least 11 more people died in other Western European nations as a result of the storm named Xynthia.

Warnings had been issued by Friday evening in France for people to stay off beaches and coastal roads, but hundreds were surprised in their homes in the middle of the night by surging waters that smashed through aging sea walls.

Those who were able to act quickly scrambled to second floors or rooftops, where they waited hours for rescue workers.

In the badly damaged Charente-Maritime coastal region, most of the 11 killed were elderly people in their homes, officials said.

"The warning was only for strong winds" of up to 99 mph, said Mario Hamelin, 48, who owns hotels on the Ile de Re, an island in Charente-Maritime. "We have winds this strong every year, but . . . what wasn't emphasized by the French government, or weather services, was the fact that [the winds] would be combined with a high tide. A lot of people didn't pay attention to that."

About 40 families whose homes were flooded were being housed for free by the local hotel association, of which Hamelin is president. No official count was available on the number of homes damaged or people displaced. At least eight people remained missing Monday.

The toll left many asking whether an evacuation should have been required, and whether restrictions on coastal construction are adequate.

On a visit to the devastated Vendee and Charente-Maritime regions Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he wanted a full investigation.

"We need to ask how, in France, in the 21st century, families can be surprised in their sleep, die drowned in their home," Sarkozy told French journalists in the vacation town of La Rochelle.

"We were ready to respond to a storm. We weren't ready to respond to such a fast rise in water level," Lt. Col. Patrick Vailli, a spokesman for France's civil service agency, said in an interview.

Vailli said that in the future, a "larger evacuation" would be required in regions expected to face "a similar phenomenon."

Sarkozy promised $4 million to help storm victims and said he would issue a natural catastrophe declaration Tuesday. He also called for a "dike plan" to rebuild the coastal area.

Many of the region's sea walls, including those around the Il de Re, were damaged. Roads were torn, and by Monday night about 70,000 customers remained without electricity.

The dikes, some of them hundreds of years old, were being repaired as quickly as possible, said Frederic Brassac, a sub-prefect who helped lead rescues in Charente-Maritime. But while the tide is high, he said, it is unsafe for residents to return to damaged homes. "It acts a little like a tsunami. ... " said Brassac. "So we ask people not to go on roads, or leave their homes."

Lauter is a special correspondent.
March 2, 2010
Storm Exposes Risks of Napoleonic Dams
By GABRIELE PARUSSINI, The Wall Street Journal

PARIS — France started rethinking its rules governing coastline construction and dam building after the nation's fiercest storm in a decade killed at least 51 people.

President Nicolas Sarkozy Monday rushed to the stricken area and pledged €3 million of emergency aid. He also pledged to review the system of dams that failed to protect coastal inhabitants from the sea surge.

"It's a true tragedy," Mr. Sarkozy said in a press conference at l'Aiguillon-sur-Mer. "This shouldn't prevent us from analyzing the dams and the urban planning. We can't go on building everywhere." Mr. Sarkozy asked Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo to present a national dam plan before the summer.

The president also charged a commission to report on the 100 kilometers of dams protecting the sandy coast, which date back to the Napoleonic era. The dam line was breached in several points, said Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Vailli spokesman for France's civil-protection agency.

Experts for some time have warned of the risks attached to the coastal dams.

"When something exceptional happens, dams simply aren't enough," Bruno Toison, an official from the agency that supervises the country's coast line, said on the phone. "We must decide to stop construction in risky zones" close to the dams. He said that the Languedoc-Roussillon region, the Mediterranean coast of Camargue, as well as the northern coast on the channel, close to Calais, remain at risk of inundation.

Mr. Toison said that dams would require more maintenance, but that politicians lack incentive to invest because catastrophes aren't frequent. He added that the dam management is split between local authorities, land owners and the state, making decisions more complicated.

Weather had improved markedly Monday. But experts warned that while the strong winds that hit the coast over the weekend had subsided, the damage caused by the storms had left the region vulnerable.

"The main risk is behind us, but there are still high tides which could push sea water inland, where it's already breached the dams," said Patrick Galois, a forecaster at Meteo France, the national weather service.

In the night between Saturday and Sunday, the combination of an exceptionally high tide pushing up the sea level by over a meter above normal and strong winds gusting to 160 kilometers an hour spawned waves as high as 8 meters, which overran dikes and flooded inland areas.

The worst damages were recorded in Vendee, in west-central France- where the coastal towns of Aiguillon-sur-Mer and Faute-sur-Mer took the brunt of the tempest and tallied over half the casualties.

Firefighters and emergency workers were still on Monday trying to rescue people trapped in the storm-stricken regions.

By Monday night, about 10,000 people had been evacuated from their homes on the Atlantic coast and rescue teams staff were trying to find eight people still missing, Mr. Vailli said. Damages caused by the storm were vast.

In the coastal region, an estimated 220,000 homes remained without electricity after almost one million houses lost power due to the storm, ERDF, France's power grid manager, said in a statement. On Monday afternoon, about 172,000 households were still without electricity, and Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it may take "several days" to restore power to everyone.

The rest of the country suffered a virtual standstill for most of the weekend. Air France-KLM, France's Franco-Dutch national carrier, cancelled over 100 flights out of about 700 leaving or landing its main hub at Charles de Gaulle, north of Paris.

National railway operator SNCF faced multiple incidents due to trees falling on the rails. High speed trains on the whole network suffered long delays.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde called on insurers to speed up the refunding procedures for individual and businesses hit by the storm. Allianz, Europe's largest insurer, extended the deadline for damage declaration and pledged more leniency in the evaluation of reimbursement demands. [...]

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