WEATHER

France and Spain start to repair vast storm damage

As winds begin to die down, rescuers are rushing in to clear debris, put out fires and restore electricity in south-west France and northern Spain. A storm with winds as high as 180kph killed 15 in the region and caused enormous damage to forests.

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AFP - French and Spanish rescuers scrambled Sunday to reopen railways, douse forest fires and restore power to nearly a million homes plunged into darkness by a violent storm that killed 21 people in southern Europe.

"The priority today is to re-establish the electricity as quickly as possible," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy as he visited a town in the southwestern region that bore the brunt of Saturday's storm.

The majority of the deaths were in Spain, where four children died near Barcelona when the roof and a wall of a sports hall were brought down on their heads by winds that in some places reached more than 180 kilometres (110 miles) an hour.

They were playing baseball outside the centre in Sant Boi de Llobregat as the storm -- which saw 20-metre (70-foot) high waves battering the Atlantic coast -- gathered force and they ran inside to shelter.

Witnesses said they heard a loud sound, then saw that the roof and part of a wall had crumpled.

"The entire population is shocked by this tragedy," Jaume Bosch, the mayor of the town, said on the municipal website.

The storm was one of the fiercest to hit western Europe in a decade.

It blew in eastwards from the Atlantic Ocean, barrelling across southwest France and northern Spain -- ripping roofs off houses, pulling down power lines and flattening hundreds of thousands of trees.

On Sunday it battered Italy, where a young woman was swept away to her death by a wave as she was walking on a beach near the southern city of Naples.

The winds had lost some of their force but were strong enough to destroy a restaurant in Imperia on the Mediterranean coast and to force some Italian ferry operators to cancel their sailings.

In Portugal, police and firefighters rescued 600 people who were stuck on roads blocked by snow and ice, officials said.

Eight people were killed in France, including four who inhaled carbon monoxide from electricity generators they used amid power outages in two separate incidents.

Two drivers were killed by falling trees Saturday in the Landes department, while flying debris killed a 78-year-old outside his home. A 73-year-old woman died in the Gironde department when a power cut halted her breathing machine.

Twelve died in total in Spain, including a woman who was crushed by a wall, another who died after a door lifted by the wind slammed into her, and a police sergeant killed by a falling tree as he was directing traffic.

Hundreds of Spanish firefighters -- backed up by 14 planes and helicopters -- battled three separate forest fires sparked by electricity pylons brought down by the tempest in northeastern Spain.

The fires were under control by Sunday evening, officials said.

Sarkozy said the French response to the storm had been better than back in 1999 when a tempest killed scores and uprooted millions of trees.

There was "much more resourcefulness, fewer victims, more efficiency," said Sarkozy, who was accompanied by government ministers as well as the heads of the EDF power company and the SNCF state rail operator.

Sarkozy said he had asked the army to help the operation to bring services back to normal.

A dozen helicopters flew over the storm-struck zone in France to locate damaged power lines and direct a thousand workers deployed from electricity grid operator ERDF's rapid intervention team to restore power to 800,000 homes.

Technicians flown in from Germany, Britain and Portugal were working in the operation, ERDF said.

The weather also cut phone lines in 300,000 homes in southwestern France.

Many rail routes were still cut on Sunday but the main Bordeaux-Paris line was running again. The SNCF said it had around 1,000 workers removing trees from rail lines and repairing overhead cables.

Much of the Gironde and Landes regions have key forestry industries but huge areas were flattened by the storm, officials said, adding that more than half of the trees in the area appeared to have fallen.

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