France and Italy step up rescue efforts after floods

Saint-Martin-Vesubie (France) (AFP) –


French and Italian rescue services stepped up their search efforts on Sunday after floods cut off several villages near the two countries' border, causing widespread damage and killing two people in Italy.

Eight people remained unaccounted for on the French side of the border after storms, torrential rain and flash floods battered the area, washing away roads and houses, cutting off entire villages and triggering landslips.

Breil-sur-Roya, a French village close to the Italian border, was a scene of devastation with houses buried in mud and turned-over cars stuck in the riverbed, an AFP journalist said.

Rescue efforts were concentrated on the Roya valley where around 1,000 firefighters backed by helicopters and the army resumed their search for survivors, while giving assistance to people whose homes were destroyed or inaccessible.

Storm Alex barrelled into France's west coast on Thursday bringing powerful winds and rain across the country before moving into northern Italy.

"What we are going through is extraordinary," the prefect of the Alpes-Maritimes region said Bernard Gonzalez after as much as 60 centimetres (two feet) of rain fell over 24 hours in the worst-affected areas.

France has declared the region a natural disaster zone.

Saint-Martin-Vesubie, a French village home to 1,400 north of Nice, was cut off by road.

A bedraggled group of tourists and residents -- including a woman who had lost her house -- gathered in the village's local square to be airlifted to safety, an AFPTV journalist said after reaching the site on foot.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex inspected the damage by helicopter Saturday and said his government had triggered its emergency plan for handling natural disasters.

He feared the number of people missing could rise after dozens of cars, as well as several houses, were swept away in apocalyptic scenes.

Local authorities gave shelter to some 200 people overnight, while food and thousands of bottles of water were being airlifted into remote villages cut off by the storms.

-'Helicopter procession' -

Gonzalez called on the families of the missing people not to give up hope.

"Just because their loved ones haven't been able to get in touch doesn't mean that they have been taken by the storm," he said.

Many landline and some mobile phone services were disrupted, with some villages using satellite phones to communicate with rescue services.

Despite forecasts of more rain, rescue efforts were to continue throughout Sunday, Gonzalez said.

"The helicopter procession will continue all day long," he said.

The two people who died Saturday in Italy were a volunteer firefighter on a rescue operation in the Aosta Valley and a man whose car was washed away in the River Sesia further east.

The presidents of Italy's Piedmont and Liguria regions signed a joint letter calling on the government to declare a state of emergency with several villages cut off.

"The situation is very serious. It is like it was in 1994," when 70 died after the Po and Tarano rivers flooded, Piedmont's president, Alberto Cirio, told La Stampa newspaper.

"The difference being 630 mm of water fell in 24 hours -- unprecedented in such a small timeframe since 1954."

Cirio added Italy was already struggling to cope with the effects of the coronavirus which has left some 36,000 dead and shattered the economy over the past six months.