Rescue services yesterday stepped up their search efforts in southwestern France after floods cut off several villages and killed two people in Italy.
Breil-sur-Roya, a French village close to the Italian border, was a scene of devastation with houses buried in mud and turned-over vehicles stuck in the riverbed, a journalist said.
Eight people were still missing on the French side of the border after storms, torrential rain of up to 50cm and flash floods battered the area, washing away roads and houses, and triggering landslides.
Rescue efforts were concentrated on the Roya Valley where about 1,000 firefighters backed up by helicopters and army units resumed their search hoping to find survivors, and giving assistance to people whose homes were destroyed or inaccessible.
Storm Alex on Thursday barreled into France’s west coast bringing powerful winds and rain across the country before moving to Italy, where regions across the north suffered an onslaught on Saturday.
“What we are going through is extraordinary,” Alpes-Maritimes Prefect Bernard Gonzalez said.
“We are used to seeing images of such disasters on other continents, sometimes with a lack of concern, but this here is something that affects us all,” he said.
France has declared the region a natural disaster zone.
Local authorities gave shelter to about 200 people overnight, while food and thousands of bottles of water were being airlifted into remote villages cut off by the storms.
Gonzalez called on the families of the missing people not to give up hope.
“Just because their loved ones haven’t been able to get in touch doesn’t mean that they have been taken by the storm,” he said.
Many landline and some mobile telephone services were disrupted, with some villages using satellite phones to communicate with rescue services.
Despite forecasts of more rain, rescue efforts were to continue throughout yesterday, Gonzalez said.
“The helicopter procession will continue all day long,” he said, adding that the prospect of more heavy weather was “a worry.”
On the Italian side of the border several villages were also still cut off, and many roads blocked, journalists said.
“I lost everything but we are alive,” said Jennyfer, 29, from Roquebilliere in France’s southern Alps.
“There must be one room left in my house,” she said after she returned following evacuation on Friday to survey the damage wrought by the Vesubie river.
In Roquebilliere, the floodwaters swept away two older people with their house.
“The firefighters did not have enough rope, and even with our rope we could not reach the house, so it was too late to get to them and the house was suddenly swept away,” resident Patrick Theus said.
A volunteer firefighter died in Italy’s Aosta Valley and a man was killed after his vehicle was washed away in the river Sesia, about 100 km further east.
Italy reported a large group of people missing after landslides hit the border area near the Col de Tende mountain pass in France.
However, late on Saturday Italian civil protection agency spokeswoman Mara Anastasi said that 21 people had been found and evacuated by helicopter, including two Germans and their grandchildren.
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