PARIS – A violent late winter storm with fierce rain and hurricane-strength winds ripped across western Europe on Sunday, battering France and four other countries, leaving at least 51 people dead.
The storm, named Xynthia, was the worst in France since 1999 when 90 people died. Prime Minister Francois Fillon held an emergency Cabinet meeting and afterward called the storm a “national catastrophe.”
Many of the at least 45 victims in France drowned, while others died when hit by parts of buildings or trees and branches that were ripped off by the wind. At least a dozen people were missing Sunday, and 59 others were injured.
Three people died in Spain, one was killed in Germany, and a child was crushed to death in Portugal. The storm also hit Belgium, with one death reported there. Although Britain was not hit, London’s Thames Barrier – the capital’s flood defense – was closed Sunday morning as a precaution.
Nearly 900,000 people in France were without electricity. Rivers overflowed their banks in Brittany, while high tides and enormous waves swamped Atlantic Ocean communities in the early morning hours.
Sea walls broke in the town of L’Aguillon, where the ocean waters reached the roofs of some homes. Helicopters lifted people to safety throughout the day.
In Paris, winds knocked over motorcycles and spewed garbage around the streets of the capital. Flights were delayed and at least 100 were canceled at the two main Paris airports. A number of trains throughout France were delayed because of flooded tracks.
Winds reached about 130 mph on the summits of the Pyrenees and nearly 100 mph along the Atlantic Coast. The storm hit the Vendee and Charente-Maritime regions in southwestern France hardest, flooding coastal islands and tossing boats around in ports.
The storm was moving eastward, and parts of France along the border with Germany and Belgium were on alert for heavy rain and high winds.