Natural and human factors made French storm a killer
L’AIGUILLON-SUR-MER, France - The moon was full, the wind roared, the tide was high, and people died by the dozen.
After a wall of ocean water engulfed picturesque towns along France’s Atlantic coast, residents, officials, and specialists are all asking why.
Was it due to climate change? A freak storm fueled by hurricane-force winds? The result of human greed over desirable land or bungling actions by government officials?
Many observers point to the thousands of miles of sea walls in France, many built too low, in severe disrepair, or reportedly dating from the era of Napoleon. They also cite the new houses cropping up behind them, tantalizingly close to the country’s poorly protected but much beloved shoreline.
Environmental groups say the storm should be a wake-up call about the danger of weak sea defenses, with scientists warning that climate change will bring even fiercer storms and rising seas in the years ahead.
At least 52 people were killed when the storm named Xynthia swept through France’s southwestern coastal communities between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Sunday, surprising victims in their sleep.
Most of the fatalities were on the French mainland, especially in two towns, L’Aiguillon-Sur-Mer and La Faute-Sur-Mer.
The sea walls in L’Aiguillon-Sur-Mer - the only barrier between the surging Atlantic Ocean and the sea-level land - crumbled and salty water gushed forth, ripping up trees and covering some homes.
A physicist who specializes in tides, Pierre Bouteloup, blamed what he called an “extraordinary coincidence’’: a strong wind, enormous waves, and, above all, very low atmospheric pressure that drew the water even higher.
Others say human error clinched the disaster with chaotic urbanization in flood zones and a failure to maintain the country’s aging sea walls.
France has as many as 6,200 miles of sea walls, some built in the 18th century, said Deputy Ecology Minister Chantal Jouanno. And about one-tenth of them - 620 miles - “can be considered a risk,’’ she said.
Sea walls were on the agenda yesterday at President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Cabinet meeting - and he ordered an immediate inspection of all such barriers in France.