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Lourdes launches massive clean up after flash floods

The French town of Lourdes, home to famous Catholic sanctuaries, was undergoing a massive cleanup on Sunday after flood waters forced some 450 pilgrims to evacuate and temporarily closed the main shrine.


A massive clean-up was under way Sunday in the French pilgrimage town of Lourdes, famed for its Catholic sanctuaries, after flash floods forced the evacuation of some 450 pilgrims and closed the main shrine.

As the waters receded to reveal thick carpets of mud, serious damage to the sanctuaries became apparent, but they were due to gradually start reopening from Monday morning.

However the Massabielle cave, where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, remained flooded Sunday, with debris including wood, candles and branches floating on the surface.

Thierry Castillo, the custodian of the sanctuaries, told AFP: "There have been floods in the past but this one has caused the most damage in the last 30 years."

It was a fresh blow for the sanctuaries, which had a one-million-euro ($1.3-million) shortfall in last year's 30-million-euro budget after donations fell amid the eurozone debt crisis.

"We have serious damages which will run into hundreds of thousands of euros," Castillo said, adding that he hoped for "a mobilisation of donors".

The streets bordering the Gave de Pau, the river running through the town, were carpeted with mud 10 centimetres (four inches) deep.

More than 450 pilgrims were evacuated from flooded hotels Saturday.

Pope Benedict XVI evoked the flooding at a special Vatican mass Sunday, when he named seven new saints, saying: "Let us turn to the Virgin Mary with a thought for Lourdes, the victim of flash floods which inundated the grotto where the Madonna had appeared."

The small hydroelectric power station that provides half the power used by the sanctuaries was damaged by the floods, as were two footbridges.

Entry to the sanctuaries was barred Sunday, and many visitors voiced disappointment, among them Laura Generini, an Italian who turned 39 on Sunday.

"I hope I will be able to pray at the grotto before I leave," said Generini, who came from Florence.

Others were undaunted.

"We will return in spring," said Eric Alves d'Olivera, from the southern French city of Montpellier.

Shops hawking souvenirs were however open on Sunday, and some owners complained that the reaction to the flash floods was too heavy-handed and hurt their business.

"There is great panic over something not that big. We have seen worse like in 1982," said Lise Aldaz, who owns a souvenir shop.

"Luckily this came at the end of the season," she said. "It's sad for the people, especially the foreign visitors."

But Jean-Marie Attard, the head of a regional hoteliers' association, hailed the evacuations, saying: "We have come through something that could have been dramatic.

"All lives were saved and we can view this as a miracle."


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