19 die as floods hit France

AT LEAST 19 people died and thousands were driven from their homes in south-western France after torrential rain caused the worst floods and mudslides for half a century.

A mother and her three children died when their home was buried beneath an avalanche of mud in the village of Labastide-Rouairoux in Tarn. An entire family died when their car was swept off the road after a river burst its banks near Mouthoumet in the Aude department.

There were fears last night that the death toll could grow. Six people were reported missing in the Aude after their cars were carried away by flood-waters up to six foot deep. 10 potholers were trapped by rising water near Grimat in the Lot.

A huge breach in the banks of a sewage treatment works at Saint-Laurent- de-la Salanque in the Pyrenees threatened yesterday afternoon to inundate two villages in a mixture of floodwater and sewage. Over 2,000 people, already driven from their homes, had to be moved last night from the village hall where they had taken refuge. Three helicopters were hovering over the village, monitoring the progress of the floods.

River banks and dykes were reported to have collapsed - or be on the point of collapse - in several places in the four departments worst affected.

Many of the victims were trapped in their cars on Friday night as rivers and streams turned into raging torrents, after a day of incessant rain. Such was the ferocity of the floods that several fire-engines which turned out to try to rescue people trapped in their homes were also swept away.

Fifteen villages were still cut off last night. Six army and rescue service helicopters were touring the stricken areas, rescuing people from rooftops and marooned vehicles.

The walled town of Carcassonne in the Aude, one of the most popular tourist sites in France, was a scene of devastation last night after floodwater ripped up paving stones and left cars overturned. In some streets, cars were piled against one another like playing cards. Residents said that the lower part of the town had become a torrent of filthy water, instantly and without warning on Friday evening.

Close to Xavier Domenech's fruit and vegetable shop is a sign on the wall marking the peak of the great floods of 1940, over 15in up the wall. Mr Domenech said that at the height of the floods on Friday, the water had reached over 5ft - four times as high. Looking at the stock of his shop floating in the brown water, he said: "I have lost everything, except my life."

The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, who comes from south-western France, not far from the stricken areas, sent his "most sincere condolences" to the families of victims.

Dominique Voynet, the minister for the environment, said the scale of the flooding was abnormal and could not just be passed off as a "natural catastrophe". She said questions would have to be asked about the lack of warning and the possibility that modern agricultural and forestry practices had disturbed traditional patterns of drainage.

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