House-to-house searches after killer storm

THOUSANDS of firefighters and rescue workers searched house by house yesterday along France’s devastated Atlantic coast, trying to help those still stranded by a storm that smashed sea walls and killed at least 62 people across western Europe.

The storm, Xynthia, blew into France early on Sunday with hurricane-force winds, flooding ports, destroying homes and leaving 1 million households without electricity. It also battered Belgium, Portugal, Spain and parts of Germany and snarled train and air travel throughout the continent.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy toured the worst-hit areas yesterday, the coastal regions of Vendee and Charente-Maritime, and pledged €3 million in emergency aid.

Regional officials clamoured for France to quickly reinforce its aging sea walls. About half the French death toll of 51 was attributed to the breach of the sea wall off the coastal town of L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, where ocean waters surged up to the roofs of some homes.

The spokesman for France’s emergency services, Lt Col Patrick Vailli, said nine other people were still missing and scores more were wounded.

The storm also caused six deaths in Germany, including a two-year-old boy who drowned after he was blown into a river. Three people were dead in Spain, and Belgium and Portugal had one fatality each.

France’s railways had major delays, and cancellations continued yesterday at Frankfurt Airport, one of Europe’s most important hubs.

Sarkozy flew over the worst-flooded areas and met with locals in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, promising to quickly channel recovery funds. “It is a national disaster, a human drama with a terrible death toll. The urgent thing is to support the families who have members missing or dead.”

The French leader also tried to staunch a storm of criticism over the state of the country’s sea walls, saying “this is not the time.”

In Portugal’s Azores islands, a flash flood swept a school bus off a road. The driver and one child are missing on Sao Miguel, one of the archipelago’s nine islands.

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