The Heat Is Online

French Flood Submerges Homes For A Month

Floods reach chest level in waterlogged Somme

Reuters News Service, May 4, 2001

ABBEVILLE, France - France's Somme valley, synonymous with World War One trench warfare, is once again teeming with muddy, khaki-clad soldiers, army trucks and sandbags.

If the trickle of visitors coming to ogle some of the worst flooding ever seen in France find the parallel vaguely amusing, the joke is lost on locals.

Some 3,000 homes have been under water around the river Somme in northern France for over a month, 1,000 people have been evacuated and hundreds are sheltering with relations. Hundreds more, especially older residents, are too terrified to budge.

Sloshing around their homes in rubber boots, knee-deep in foul smelling, stagnant water, some in their fourth week without hot water, electricity or an indoor toilet, flood victims in the waterlogged town of Abbeville have had enough.

Army cadets, emergency workers and volunteers do their best to keep morale up, cheerfully ferrying people around in boats, shifting furniture and delivering hot soup or stew three times a day to those that can no longer cook.

Yet with no end in sight, and nobody able to explain where all the water has come from or how long it will take to shift, nerves are starting to snap.

"I keep asking myself how I'll get through another day. My wallpaper's rotting, everything smells, tiles are falling off. I can't cook, shower or make coffee, but I can't bear to leave even if staying makes me cry," said Mireille Vasseux from her window, brown water swirling inches below the windowsill.

"I'm 69 and I never saw anything like this in all my life here. I've seen pictures of floods in other countries, it always looked terrible. I never thought it could happen here."

FLOODS SEEN TAKING MONTHS TO SUBSIDE

Though 117 communes have been declared disaster zones, the floods are nowhere near the scale of deluges in parts of the developing world that routinely leave hundreds dead or homeless.

It is not the first time the Somme, with its porous subsoil, has flooded, nor is France alone in Europe. Scores of Britons lost their homes through floods last year after months of rain.

But what is worrying is that the waters are not dropping.

Given seasonal high tides and daily drizzle, experts say water levels may take months to subside, despite three massive pumps brought in from the Netherlands at the end of April.

The pumps are shifting 15,000 cubic metres (530,000 cubic feet) of water per hour from the swollen river to the sea. But the excess water is estimated at 10 million cubic metres, which, even if it stopped raining, would take a full month to clear.

"It's the duration that scares me. I never heard of a flood lasting so long. It's not just burst riverbanks, this water came from behind, from high tides," said teacher Eric Duhaupas, whose small detached house is surrounded by a moat, its cellar full to the brim with what looks and smells like dirty dishwater.

Fireman Jean-Joel Holzmann is also gloomy. "It's going to take months and months for this to go down, even if it stops raining - just look at the amount of water," he says.

He points to a deep crack in a school wall, evidence that the building is starting to subside into a playground where water is at chest level. The brightly coloured tops of swings, climbing frames and basketball nets poke eerily above the muddy surface.

RESIDENTS DEMAND EXPLANATIONS

For Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who is fielding a slump in popularity ahead of 2002 elections, the floods are yet another environmental headache after devastating hurricanes in late 1999 and a disastrous oil spill off the north coast.

Heckled when he visited Abbeville in April, Jospin was even - wrongly - accused by locals of diverting the swollen Seine river from Paris.

"They're not telling us everything, there has to be something behind this and we want to know what," said one local man, citing rumours of mismanagement of estuary sluice gates.

"First they told us it would be over in June, then July, and now September," a woman added. "My children are playing in water that's got sewage floating in it yet nothing's being done. You'd think we were living in the bloody third world."

The government has pledged 30 million francs ($4.07 million) in aid and opened an investigation into the causes of the flood.

But nerves are fraying fast - even men admit they're wept - and emergency workers are reporting attempted suicides.

SOLIDARITY REIGNS, DESPITE DESPAIR

Of 730 flooded houses in Abbeville, scores have already been written off as foundations rot, and their owners have warned the ground may be too waterlogged to rebuild on.

Even where the streets look dry, telltale plastic piping runs out of every cellar, feeding ribbons of grey running water along the edges of every road. A glance through garden fences shows lawns looking like mangrove swamps.

Around the submerged station, where the tops of chairs on the platforms make ripples on the surface, the mood is bleak. Trains are unlikely to run much before Christmas, as it will take months to replace rusty track and electrical contacts.

Hotels and camp sites, which depend on summer tourism, are empty. Cafe owners say it is hardly worth opening. Supermarkets and schools are shut and effluent pours from a flooded factory.

"It's just so depressing, day after day like this. Our season is ruined. Even if we have guests we've no hot water and there are rats everywhere," says Corinne Decamps, who is letting out rooms at the Grand Hotel de la Gare for next to nothing to the media and what locals dub "disaster tourists".

In a nearby street, pumps hum day and night in the flooded houses and electric cables hang dangerously close to the water. Planks of wood on columns of bricks provide outside walkways while wooden boxes make stepping stones inside houses.

But in one street, spirits are high, as disaster brings neighbours together. Huddled under umbrellas in knee-high water in the road, a bedraggled group holds a makeshift barbecue, wading about to music, and swigging whisky to keep warm.

A sign over a front door reads, "Welcome to the Open Air Ball - Free for Flood Victims, 300 francs for the Curious".

"You've got to see the funny side," says the host, Patrick. "It's disgusting - we're living like prisoners and peeing in plastic bags. But you've got to keep morale up somehow."

Story by Catherine Bremer
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE