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Flooding claims 19 lives in France

Rains in southeastern France have caused Le Real River to spill over its banks. It was unclear how many people were missing. Rains in southeastern France have caused Le Real River to spill over its banks. It was unclear how many people were missing. (Sebastien Nogier/ Reuters)
By Lionel Cironneau
Associated Press / June 17, 2010

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DRAGUIGNAN, France — At least 19 people were killed in flash floods that hit the back hills of the French Riviera yesterday and turned streets into rivers of surging, muddy water, officials said.

There was confusion about how many people were missing in the flooding that washed over picturesque towns and left them standing in brown water, a press officer at the local Var region prefecture said. But she believed at least 12 people were unaccounted for.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, visiting the region, said the death toll “unfortunately may climb.’’

The floods, which began late Tuesday, swept away cars, trees, and parts of houses in a downpour that devastated the picturesque region in the hills behind a portion of the Riviera, a magnet for tourists. Coastal towns where tourists flock also were hit.

Eleven of the deaths were in Draguignan in the Riviera back hills scattered with olive groves and small vineyards.

Nearly 3,000 rescue workers poured into the region, joining 650 police, the prefecture said. Nearly a dozen helicopters worked overnight Tuesday to evacuate people trapped by flood waters, which reached about 6 1/2 feet high in some areas.

It was the second time in less than four months that France has coped with major weather-related disasters. On Feb. 28, at least 52 people were killed when a storm named Xynthia swept through French coastal communities on the Atlantic.

Yesterday afternoon, about 1,200 people were in shelters, and tens of thousands were without electricity or phone service, the Var government said. More than 89,000 people remained without electricity last evening.

The Toulon-Hyeres airport, closed for several hours, was reopened, but the train line between Toulon and Nice was shut down, the prefecture said.

Meteo France meteorological service was forecasting light rain last night.

“We’ve never seen so much rain in the month of June,’’ said Patrick Galois of the national weather service. He said some 16 inches of rain had fallen in the hardest-hit area of Arcs, near Draguignan.

President Nicolas Sarkozy said his “first thoughts go out to the victims,’’ and underscored his “solidarity with the inhabitants of the Var region who have had to go through this very difficult natural disaster.’’

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