France prepares for floods as heatwave claims more victims

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The Independent Online

As political fallout grew yesterday over the thousands of deaths linked to the heatwave in France, the government tried to pre-empt the next potential disaster when it announced measures to deal with thunderstorms and floods forecast to hit the country.

As political fallout grew yesterday over the thousands of deaths linked to the heatwave in France, the government tried to pre-empt the next potential disaster when it announced measures to deal with thunderstorms and floods forecast to hit the country.

With temperatures across France appearing to have settled at about 30C, the first reliable death statistics for the heatwave began to emerge. They indicated that the 3,000 deaths predicted by the government on Thursday may be an under-estimate.

Severe thunderstorms are anticipated and Roselyne Bachelot, the Ecology minister, said she would instruct prefects to launch information campaigns in flood areas. She also called on citizens to "limit their movements during violent thunderstorms''.

For the moment the heatweave continues and the minister made her appeal at a time when people were thinking more about the crisis in hospitals and television reports of bodies rotting in packed mortuaries than about the advent of autumn showers.

The medical profession, while welcoming the extension nationwide of a hospital emergency plan drawn up to deal with wars and epidemics, remained on the warpath. François Aubart, head of the French hospital co-ordination unit, said: "We can only keep our fingers crossed as regards the weather. It seems that hospital admissions are dropping slightly but the death rates are still very worrying.

"We remain under enormous pressure because it is still hot and the Assumption holiday is now under way. Hospitals are not in the habit of discharging patients at the weekend and this means more pressure is put on the admissions side,'' he said.

Meanwhile, political capital was being made. The president of the Socialist party in the National Assembly, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said the government had reacted "very late'' and he was "under the impression of being in a country that is not being run. Perhaps those who govern us are lacking in their sense of public duty''.

Jean-François Copé, a government spokesman, countered with a broadside at the previous Socialist government "who left us with the 35-hour week''. He said: "The 35-hour week has left our hospitals with unsurmountable problems. This kind of heatwave, at a time of year when staffing levels are low, can only have dramatic consequences.''

Gilles de Robien, the Transport minister, said he could not see how the government could have done more. "I do not see that we have any cause to feel qualms. I think everyone realises that we have been dealing with an exceptional situation but that those initiatives which could be taken were implemented in a timely way,'' he said. The minister added that road speed limits had been reduced at the start of the heatwave.

The release yesterday of the first official death statistics for the heatwave showed the Val d'Oise department alone recorded 200 more mortuary admissions during the heatwave than in the same period last year. If a similar rise is found elsewhere in the country, the government's estimate of 3,000 deaths will turn out to be conservative.

The prefect of Val d'Oise, which is near Paris, said 627 people had died in the department between 25 July and 13 August, compared with 427 in the same period last year.

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