Europe storm death toll hits 59, France is the hardest hit; Sarkozy pledges emergency aid

By Jenny Barchfield, AP
Monday, March 1, 2010

Europe storm death toll at 59; France hardest hit

PARIS — Thousands of firefighters and other rescue workers searched house by house Monday along France’s devastated Atlantic coast, trying to help those still stranded by a storm that smashed sea walls and killed at least 59 people across western Europe.

The storm, called Xynthia, blew into France early Sunday with hurricane-force winds, flooding ports, destroying homes and leaving 1 million households without electricity. It also battered Belgium, Portugal, Spain and parts of Germany and snarled train and air travel throughout the continent.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy toured the worst-hit areas Monday, the coastal regions of Vendee and Charente-Maritime, and pledged euro3 million ($4 million) in emergency aid.

The French death toll from the storm rose to 48 on Monday, and Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told France-Info radio it would “doubtless” increase. The spokesman for France’s emergency services, Lt. Col. Patrick Vailli, said nine people were still missing and scores more were wounded.

The storm also caused six deaths in Germany — including a 2-year-old boy who drowned after he was blown into a river. Three people were dead in Spain, and Belgium and Portugal had one fatality each.

France’s railways had major delays and cancellations continued Monday at Frankfurt airport — one of Europe’s most important hubs.

Sarkozy flew over flooded areas and met with locals in the coastal town of L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, where sea walls collapsed, allowing ocean waters to surge to the roofs of some homes. The French president promised to declare a natural disaster area and quickly channel the recovery funds.

Local officials say the extensive damage underscores the urgent need to upgrade France’s aging sea walls and more strictly enforce coastal building codes.

“The sea wall that broke dated from (the era) of Napoleon,” Philippe de Villiers, a far-right politician who heads the regional government in Vendee, told France-Info. “Either we build (new) sea walls, in which case they need to be taller and taller … or we have to build further” inland.

In Portugal’s Azores islands, a flash flood swept a school bus off a road. The driver and one child are missing on Sao Miguel, one of the archipelago’s nine islands.

The Azores islands lie 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) west of mainland Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean.

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