Death toll in Europe rises to 115 as French landscape is uprooted

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The Independent Online
EVERYWHERE YOU look, apple trees - the glory of Normandy - have been plucked out of the ground like weeds. Entire woods of pine and fir have been felled.

A giant chestnut, which has stood in the lane behind our house for more than a century, was dragged out of the ground by its roots and fell headlong, missing our roof by no more than five feet. If the tree had toppled another degree or to the right, our little house would have been crushed.

The devastation in our small village in Calvados - sickening as it is to the inhabitants - is just a tiny fraction of the damage caused by the ferocious tempest which swept across northern France and neighbouring countries in the early hours of Boxing Day. Twenty-four people died in new storms in south-west France yesterday, bringing the death toll in France alone to 68 since Sunday.

In Western Europe as a whole, the weather has claimed 115 lives since Christmas, many of the victims crushed by falling trees or masonry.

In Paris, it is estimated that half the trees in the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes - the green "lungs" of the capital - have been flattened by the winds, which reached 120mph in places, the highestrecorded inland in France.

In the celebrated park of the Chateau de Versailles, the destruction is equally heart-breaking. Hundreds of beeches and oaks - some of them planted on the orders of Queen Marie-Antoinette two centuries ago - lie flattened.

Travelling across western and northern France in the past two days, it seemed as though an enraged angel of the Lord had passed overhead, armed with a giant chainsaw. One sizable pine wood close to our village, thick and dark until two days ago, is completely razed to the ground.

The same picture is repeated as far east as Lorraine and Alsace, where tens of thousands of acres of trees have been levelled.

There has also been substantial damage to celebrated architectural landmarks, including the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and Rouen cathedral (where the roofs were partly torn away) and the Basilique at Nancy, where a spire is said to be in danger of collapse.

France had been braced for an ecological catastrophe over Christmas - but not this one.

It was known that a large swathe of the western seaboard would be horribly polluted by the cloying fuel oil spilled into the Atlantic when the tanker Erika sank on 12 December.

The "black tide" came in, sure enough, but far to the north of where it was expected, scattered by the ferocious south-westerly storm which took the French weather service completely by surprise.

Although the damage to seabirds and inshore fisheries and shellfish farms in Brittany is serious enough, the destruction wreaked inland will take far longer to restore - if it can ever be restored.

On past experience, in Brittany and Alaska and elsewhere, coastal ecology recovers from oil pollution in 10 years, at most. A 200-year-old tree cannot be replaced in less than 200 years.

"It's the end of the century. You always get great catastrophes at the end of a century," said our neighbour Marcel Eude, 70, the deputy mayor of our commune, as he surveyed the remains of his vast chestnut tree, now blocking two farm tracks. "I have lived here all my life and we have great gales from the sea every winter but I have never known one like this.

"Just look around," he said. "There is hardly an apple tree left in the village."

Calvados without apple trees is like Bordeaux without vines. The ones in our village - although much mourned, especially the lovely gnarled tree in our garden which used to carry our baby daughter's swing - were not economically important. They mostly grew apples for homemade cider.

Down in the valley, it is a different story, however. Near to the small town of Clecy, acres of the trees used to make the celebrated local apple spirit, Calvados or "Calva", lie scythed to the ground or twisted at crazy angles.

It takes 25 years before a new tree can produce apples that are mature enough to make Calvados.

For the two farmers in our village, there is a more immediate problem. The great Boxing Day gale blew the corrugated iron roofs off their cow sheds.

The power has been cut to their milking machines. A tangle of fallen pylons and wires all over northern and western France meant that the electricity remained cut off for 900,000 households in France last night, including 50,000 in Calvados and all eight homes in our village.

For a dairy farmer, an electricity cut is not a nuisance: it is a potential catastrophe. One farmer, Andre, is limping along by rigging up his tractor as a mobile generator to keep his milking machines going, in the open air beneath his shattered shed roof. He has even, with typical generosity, taken in some of the cows of the other village farmer, Jean-Michel, for milking. Jean-Michel is laboriously milking the rest by hand (he does not have a tractor of his own).

The real threat to both farmers, however, is that without mains electricity they cannot refrigerate their milk . While the weather remains cold, there is no immediate problem but dairy farmers in some parts of France are already having to throw their milk away.

Such is the damage to the electricity network, that Electricite de France says it may be many days, or even several weeks, before power is restored throughout the country.

Another neighbourly gesture - the unsolicited loan of a petrol generator by our plumber - made it possible to write and send this story.