Worst flooding in France for six decades kills 27

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THE DEATH-TOLL from floods that have ravaged three departements in south-western France rose to 27 yesterday, amid tales of heroism and stubborn survival and three family tragedies.

Near Nevian, south of Montpellier, villagers constructed makeshift rafts and lifelines to try to rescue a family of four who were marooned in two trees when their car was overturned by a raging torrent three metres deep and 800 metres wide that had once been the river Aude.

The villagers reached the father and his four-year-old daughter after a three-hour struggle, but the little girl died of hypothermia a few minutes later. The mother was saved from another tree, but her seven-year-old son lost his grip and fell into the torrent just before the rescuers arrived.

In Labastide-Rouairoux, a little to the north in the Tarn departement, a woman and her three children died when a mudslide engulfed their house in the early hours of Saturday morning, after a day of torrential rain.

Four members of another family, who were on a hunting expedition, died when their car was swept away by the deluge late on Friday night near Felines-Termenes in the Aude departement.

At Villedaigne, near by, Romain Larrigole, 21, clung to an electricity pylon for nine hours, surrounded by floodwaters a kilometre wide, after his van overturned. He was finally rescued by firemen on Saturday morning. "It seemed that I had waited for an eternity," he said.

There were fears last night that the death-toll might still grow. Nine people were reported missing in the Aude alone. Ten potholers have been trapped since Friday by rising water in two separate cave systems in the Lot departement, about 100 miles to the north. Initial rescue attempts failed to find either party, but gendarmes said the potholers might have taken refuge in dry caverns. Rescue efforts were due to continue into the night.

The floods also caused widespread damage and two deaths in the departement of Pyrenees Orientales, but the water was said to be receding yesterday afternoon. In the Tarn and the Aude departements, however, villages were still cut off by floodwater, and heavy falls of rain were forecast overnight.

The floods, said to be the worst for at least 60 years, overwhelmed river banks and dikes on Friday in a matter of minutes. Several rescue vehicles which answered the first emergency calls were also swept away. The region traditionally receives a large part of its annual rainfall in late autumn but the downpours on Friday afternoon and evening were exceptional. Close to 600 millimetres were recorded in several places - the average rainfall for a whole year.

The Environment Minister, Dominique Voynet, said the floods were a "natural catastrophe" but the heavy rainfall could not alone explain the speed and ferocity with which streams and rivers broke their banks. She called for an inquiry focusing on the changes in drainage patterns caused by new buildings and modern agriculture and forestry methods.

President Jacques Chirac visited Carcassonne, in the middle of the afflicted area, on Saturday night to show "solidarity" with rescue workers and displaced families. He offered the "sympathy of the nation" to the relatives of the victims and thanked the 700 firemen, gendarmes and soldiers who were mobilised to search for survivors.