Atlantic storm kills 55 as it rages across Europe

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The Independent Online

At least 55 people were killed when the fiercest storm in a decade swept across France, and western Europe, with wave surges flooding coastal regions and hurricane-force winds leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.

Most of the victims were in France, where the storm, called Xynthia, crashed against the western coast in the early hours of yesterday morning, but there were also deaths in Spain, Portugal, Germany and Belgium.

Wind speeds hit 108 mph at the tip of the Eiffel Tower, centuries-old trees were uprooted in the grounds of Versailles and on the coast, waves of more than eight metres swept inland, forcing residents to head for the safety of their roof-tops.

Major Samuel Bernes, a spokesman for the government rescue operation said that the French death toll of 40 was likely to rise. "This toll is evolving minute by minute and is likely to get worse as our reconnaissance takes us further inland, into houses and car parks," he said. Prime Minister François Fillon said the storm was a "national disaster" and there were "many people" still missing.

This morning, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to visit the low-lying western coastal regions of the Vendee and Charente-Maritime, which bore the brunt of Xynthia. He asked the government to "take immediate measures" to help the victims of the worst storm in France since 1999.

Jean-Francois Dikczyk, who lives in Yves near La Rochelle, described seeing sea water surge hundreds of metres inland and smash through the bay windows of his house. "My mother was nearly killed," he said. "She's 83 and disabled. She was sleeping on the ground floor, and her mattress was floating. My son and I managed to get her upstairs, but it was really catastrophic."

Others had no chance to escape. Many of the victims in France were engulfed by giant waves, others were hit by falling trees. Some 60 people were injured.

Air sea rescue and police helicopters were searching for residents marooned on their rooftops last night, while hundreds of people sought temporary accommodation and more than 1.3 million French homes were without electricity.

Scores of flights from Paris and Frankfurt were cancelled and a major road between France and Spain was closed to heavy goods vehicles, causing a tailback of more than 1,000 vehicles.

France had put 57 of its departments on "red alert" over the weekend – only the second such warning since the system was introduced in 2001.

In Spain, the government had warned people to prepare for what meteorologists were calling "a perfect storm", advising them not to venture out in the gales.

Among the Spanish casualties were four children aged between nine and 12, who died in the Catalonian town of Sant Boi de Llobregat Ion Saturday, when the roof of a sportshall collapsed. They had been there to play baseball but took shelter from the fierce winds in a concrete covered area for spectators. "It seems that the roof shifted and brought down part of the wall," a regional government spokesman said.

In Barcelona, a woman was killed when a wall collapsed and a falling tree killed a male park employee. In Burgos in northern Spain, a woman was crushed by a door, while in Galicia a policeman was killed by a falling tree as he directed traffic.

In Portugal, a 10-year-old boy was killed. He had been playing ball near a church, waiting to go to a prayer meeting, when the branch of a tree snapped and crushed him, according to the Portuguese Home Affairs Ministry.

The storm moved across Belgium yesterday afternoon, where a man was killed by a falling tree in his garden, and on to Germany, where a man was crushed in his car in the Black Forest.

Xynthia was making its way towards Denmark last night, but the intensity of the storm was predicted to ease.

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