PARIS (Reuters) - Storms swept through western Europe at the weekend, killing up to 50 people in France and threatening further damage as powerful winds and torrential rains moved north, officials said.
The storms ripped through cities, uprooting trees and street signs, wreaking havoc on rail networks and forcing hundreds of flights to be canceled at airports like Paris and Frankfurt.
Three people were killed in Spain, two in Germany and one in Portugal, but France was the worst hit as heavy rains, strong gusts of wind and high tides destroyed Atlantic coast sea walls, killing 25 people in the town of l’Aiguillon sur Mer alone, the mayor told French television.
“It is a natural catastrophe,” French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told BFM TV, estimating the total death toll in France at between 45 and 50 and warning that high tides could cause further damage.
Hortefeux said the French government had set aside 1 million euros in immediate relief aid and Budget Minister Eric Woerth issued a statement saying victims could seek tax relief.
The French regions of Vendee and Charente Maritime bore the brunt of the storm and were placed on flood alert along with parts of Brittany.
But centuries-old trees were also uprooted in the gardens of the Versailles palace near Paris, according to France Info radio.
Weather forecasters said the storm, named Xynthia, had moved up to northeast France and Belgium and would hit Denmark next. Meteo France said the storms seemed less fierce than those that battered France in December 1999, killing 92 people.
“Policemen are currently touring flooded houses and some of their inhabitants were found drowned,” said Frederic Rose, cabinet head of the Vendee Prefect.
A woman in l’Aiguillon sur Mer in Vendee, where a sea wall collapsed, told France’s M6 television she swam out of her house through the bathroom in the middle of the night to join neighbors on their roof.
A man in Loire-Atlantique, who spent the night on the roof of his restaurant, said: “It was as if we were on an island.”
Two people were killed near the northern Spanish city of Burgos when their car hit a fallen tree and a woman died when a wall fell on her in northwestern Spain, authorities said.
Unusually strong winds also uprooted trees in many parts of Portugal and heavy rain swelled rivers, prompting flood warnings in low-lying parts of Porto along the Douro River estuary. A girl of 10 died when she was hit by a falling tree.
In Germany, authorities said a 69-year-old man was killed by a falling tree while hiking in the state of Hesse. A 74-year-old man was killed and his wife critically injured in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg when a tree fell on their car, according to media reports.
Rail travel was severely disrupted in the three western states of Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland due to trees falling on overhead power lines.
Frankfurt airport was forced to cancel about 10 percent of its flights, an airport spokesman said.
Air France said it had canceled more than 100 flights on Sunday and more than half of all flights departing from Paris were significantly delayed, Aeroports de Paris said, while high-speed TGV train service was severely delayed due to branches and other debris obstructing the rail network.
By late Sunday, some 500,000 people in France were without electricity, said ErDF, the distribution arm of French energy group EDF, with Brittany and central France the hardest hit.
Much of England and Wales was on flood alert Sunday, with further prolonged heavy rain and strong winds expected after torrential downpours overnight.
Additional reporting by Claude Canellas in Bordeaux, Guillaume Frouin in Nantes and Laure Bretton in Paris, Jason Webb in Madrid, Axel Bugge in Lisbon, Foo Yun Chee in Brussels and Kylie MacLellan in London and Axel Hildebrand in Berlin, Editing by Noah Barkin