January 25, 2009 / 11:32 AM / 11 years ago

France and Spain pick up pieces after deadly storm

MURET, France (Reuters) - Millions of people in southwest France and northern Spain struggled on Sunday with destroyed roofs, fallen trees, power cuts and phone outages in the aftermath of a storm that killed 15 people.

Drivers avoid a hoarding destroyed by a winter storm in Morcenx, southwestern France, January 25, 2009. Winds of up to 173 mn/hour (108 miles/hour) battered southwest France on Saturday bringing down electricity lines and leaving close to a million people without power in their homes. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Saturday’s winds of up to 190 km (118 miles) an hour, which killed 11 people in Spain and four in France as trees crashed onto roads and walls collapsed, faded on Sunday but the death toll rose again.

An elderly French couple with no power in their house in the Dordogne area died, poisoned by carbon monoxide from their back-up generator, authorities said, adding that 30 others were in hospital after being poisoned in similar circumstances.

The weekend was also deadly in the French Alps, where five people died in three separate avalanches, police said. Three were young people who were skiing outside the authorised slopes, two were a couple in their fifties on a snow shoe excursion.

In the southwest, French electrical engineers, backed up by colleagues from Britain, Germany and Portugal and by 12 helicopters, struggled to restore power to 1.7 million homes that were cut off from the grid during the storm.

By nightfall on Sunday, they had reconnected 700,000 homes but the grid manager warned it could take several days to restore power to the 800,000 others still in the dark.

It was the worst storm in France since December 1999, when a huge storm killed 88 people. After that, the weather forecast agency had set up an early warning system that helped keep the death toll relatively low on Saturday as people stayed indoors.

“I am satisfied that the lessons of 1999 were learnt,” said President Nicolas Sarkozy during a visit to the affected area.

Sarkozy said the army would help thousands of workers from the electricity, phone, water and railway companies struggling to restore battered infrastructure.

EVERYTHING WAS FLYING

In the town of Muret, south of Toulouse, residents were aghast at the scale of the devastation. The secondary school there, the biggest in the Midi-Pyrenees region with 2,100 pupils, had its roof ripped off and was a scene of chaos.

“Everything was flying everywhere, it was astonishing,” the school principal Amedee Collin told Reuters.

A nearby house was completely flooded when a tree fell onto an inflatable swimming pool that was sitting on the roof.

“A third of my roof flew off. The rain drenched everything. It’s going to be another battle with the insurers,” said Gilberte Marie, a resident of Muret, sighing among the debris.

In Spain, troops helped emergency services fight a forest fire in La Nucia, north of Benidorm in Alicante province, and by evening it was nearly under control, local authorities said.

The fire started on Saturday when a tree felled an electricity pylon, prompting the evacuation of thousands of people from nearby houses. They spent Saturday night in libraries or sports centres but were now back home.

Slideshow (12 Images)

There were no forest fires in France but the impact of the storm was devastating in the huge Landes forest, south of Bordeaux, one of Europe’s largest, where tens of thousands of timber businesses are based.

Footage filmed from helicopters and broadcast on France 2 state television showed vast areas where there were more trees lying on the ground than standing.

“All forest officers are unhappy today, but they are on the ground, working to repair the damage,” Pierre-Olivier Drege, head of the French forestry commission, told France Info radio.

Additional reporting by Paris and Madrid bureaux, Claude Canellas in Bordeaux, Alexis de La Fontaine in Lyon, writing by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Katie Nguyen

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