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Most of France is declared a disaster zone

TWO-THIRDS of France was declared a disaster zone yesterday as emergency workers from Britain and other European countries were called in to repair the devastation caused by unprecedented storms on Sunday and Monday.

The death toll in Western Europe from the storms totalled 122, pushed up after snowstorms brought on by the same weather front caused avalanches in western and central Austria, killing 12 people. In France alone, the death toll from storm-related accidents reached 72.

The French military and reconstruction teams from other European Union countries were mobilised to rebuild scores of high-tension power lines flattened by the 100mph winds which swept northern and southern France on successive days. Nonetheless, more than a million homes face, literally, a gloomy start to the new millennium. The electricity service said it might take weeks to untangle the mess and restore power to all homes. More than a million telephones went dead in rural areas yesterday as emergency batteries in automatic switchboards ran out of power.

Hundreds of roads - including several motorways - were still closed by fallen trees; about one-quarter of the rail network was out of action; there was widespread flooding; tens of thousands of acres of forest lay devastated; many historical monuments, including the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, had been damaged.

Such was the extent of the destruction that the government declared a state of "natural catastrophe" in 60 out of the 94 departements of metropolitan France. It also released pounds 14m for the immediate needs of victims, including pounds 4m for damage caused by the oil slick from the sunken tanker Erika which has now polluted more than 100 miles of the Atlantic coast.

President Jacques Chirac said that the "family that is France" had been "wounded" and must now show "solidarity to treat its injuries". The government pointed out, however, that the vast bulk of the claims for destroyed roofs and other wind damage should be sent to private insurance companies.

The Interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, said that France was facing "a crisis of exceptional proportions", which would cost billions of pounds to put right. The share prices of all French insurance companies have collapsed since the start of the week.

The priority is to rebuild the nation's power grid, about one-quarter of which was destroyed by the storms. Six special cranes and their crews from London Electricity arrived in France yesterday to join the 52,000 people mobilised by Electricite de France (EDF), including army engineers, retired electricity workers and emergency crews from Belgium, Italy and Germany.

EDF said 35 trunk power lines had been brought down, 180 other high-tension lines had been broken, and scores of giant pylons had been shattered or uprooted. Two million homes in the country were still without power yesterday but EDF hoped toreconnect at least half of them before Millennium Eve tomorrow.

Apart from the misery and inconvenience caused to hundreds of thousands of families, the crippling of the power network is beginning to have serious knock-on effects.

Scores of people have been brought to emergency wards across the country suffering from the effects of carbon monoxide fumes after putting emergency generators inside their homes - despite strict instructions to leave them outside.