French ecologists to sue authorities over flood deaths

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WITH nearly 80 people feared dead after flash floods in southern France this week, ecologist groups said yesterday they would start lawsuits against local authorities for shoddy building procedures they blamed for the tragedy.

Thirty-four people were known to have died after a five-hour storm on Tuesday, described by meteorologists as 'a tropical downfall' hit the Ardeche Drome and Vaucluse regions on Tuesday. Another 44 people were still missing yesterday after rivers burst their banks, smashing houses and trees and washing away cars and caravans.

The worst affected was the town of Vaison-la-Romaine in the Vaucluse where at least 21 people died. It stands above the river Ouveze. Over the past three decades, industrial and housing estates and campsites have been built on the river banks. 'People used to build high above the river, not like now when buildings go up on the riverbed,' one resident said.

Paul Quiles, the Interior Minister, has declared the area a disaster zone. He said some areas looked 'as if they have been bombarded'. President Francois Mitterrand said a 'natural catastrophe of extreme violence which has hit a part of the country has cruelly left many families mourning. I share their pain.'

A local ecologist group put part of the blame on bad development policies in the area. The Union for Ecology in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur said the tragedy was due in part to 'the scandalous attitude' of local officials who had permitted building in areas prone to floods. The organisation offered to help bereaved families to organise lawsuits.

Some local people said reduced farming was to blame, maintaining that cultivation of soil on the river banks would have made them more resistant.

About 1,600 policemen, firemen and rescue workers, some drawn from the army and the Foreign Legion, searched for bodies yesterday. 'Technically, there is no chance of finding anybody else alive,' said Yves Cavalier, the Vaucluse fire chief who was co-ordinating rescue work in Vaison.

The wall of water which rushed through the town, rising to 50 feet, covered the town's Roman bridge for the first time since 1616. A pedestrian caught on the bridge hung on to a road sign for three hours before falling into the water. A weeping mother told on television how she lost her grip on her baby in the current and had seen him swept away.

(Photograph omitted)