French storm damage 'a catastrophe'

WEATHER New Year gales forecast as Paris counts cost of destruction to historic sites count the cosrt
THE STORMS that have ripped across Western Europe since Christmas Day are likely to return and inflict even more destruction on New Year's Eve, say weather forecasters.

France has been worst hit, with many of her monuments and churches damaged by the atrocious weather. The windows and roof of Notre-Dame cathedral have been damaged, and about 10,000 trees in the royal park at Versailles have been uprooted.

The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, broke off his holiday in Egypt and returned to France to assess the damage. The National Fund for Historic Sites and Monuments estimated that it will cost between pounds 38m and pounds 47m to repair the damaged cultural monuments.

At the 17th-century chateau at Versailles, near Paris, windows were shattered, and there were fears that water might leak through the broken roof. Some of the trees that were uprooted had been planted 200 years ago, during Napoleon's reign.

Windows were broken at the Orsay Museum in Paris, and a falling tree just missed the roof of the Petit Palais. One of the losses that was most felt was the wooden Valmy windmill in eastern France that was built in 1792 to commemorate victory over Prussia. The storm flattened the structure, which had been entirely restored last year. France's weather service described the storm as "historic and exceptional".

Mr Jospin declared the affected area a disaster zone, meaning insurance payments can be rushed through. The Prime Minister also praised police and firemen who worked through Sunday and Monday to clear 11,000 out of 16,000 emergency calls.

"This storm is a catastrophe without precedent. It was an exceptional, cataclysmic event with massive consequences." said Mr Jospin, as he stepped over fallen trees at Versailles. "The emergency services have done a tremendous job."

Tens of thousands of Christmas travellers were stranded when France's SNCF state railway company cancelled services across northern France. Passengers in cities spent the night in emergency lodgings in sports halls or youth hostels, where Red Cross volunteers gave them breakfast.

Train services to Normandy and the east of France are not expected to be completely restored beforel Friday.

In Germany, where the storm killed at least 15 people, roads were still blocked by trees felled by the winds, which gusted at speeds of up to108mph.

High winds ravaged Switzerland, where 12 people died including two in a ski gondola brought down in the Alps. Yachts were thrown ashore, roofs blown off houses and initial estimates said damage to buildings could run to pounds 59m. Rivers breaking their banks deprived about 30,000 people of drinking water in Charleroi in south Belgium, forcing emergency services to deliver water in tankers and plastic bags.