Storm's toll on French town

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VAISON-LA-ROMAINE - Residents of this southern French town told yesterday how the peaceful Ouveze river turned into a 50ft wall of water destroying everything in its path.

Of the 32 people killed in flash floods that followed violent storms across the southern half of France on Tuesday, at least 21 were in this picturesque town of 6,000, about 120km (75 miles) north of Marseilles.

Many of the dead and the 50 people missing were tourists staying at the camping grounds that dot the area in the foothills of the French Alps. 'We were watching from the bridge and we saw camper cars washed away like straw, with people inside them pounding on the glass and screaming for help,' one resident said. 'We couldn't do a thing.'

Most residents insisted that 'many more bodies will be found downstream', and rescue officials feared they may be right. 'I saw at least 50 cars washed away, some of them with people in them,' one witness said. Everyday objects turned into huge, deadly projectiles hurled by the flood waters: trees pierced through houses and vehicles, cars lay in piles in fields of mud. Helicopters droned overhead, looking for survivors and bodies long after the last residents were plucked from the rooftops of their flooded homes.

In nearby Bedarrides, the streets were under more than 6ft of water and troops picked off survivors who spent the night on rooftops. Roads were destroyed and every bridge in town was washed away, save for an old Roman bridge that remained the only link between the two banks of the Ouveze, a tributary of the Rhone.

Local people gathered around rescue operation headquarters set up under the emergency plan proclaimed on Tuesday, while the bodies, wrapped in mud-caked white sheets, were laid out on the floor of the town gymnasium.

The Interior Minister, Paul Quiles, visited the region yesterday to inspect rescue work by about 1,000 military and civilian workers who were sifting through the ooze and the debris, looking for more bodies.

In Italy, two people died in a storm which hit Savona near the French border, provoking serious floods and landslides and causing houses, buildings and a main viaduct to crumble.

(Photograph omitted)