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The BBC's George Eykyn
"France is in a general state of crisis"
 real 28k

Rachael Payne reporting
"Those who are particularly concerned about their holiday should contact their travel agent"
 real 28k

James Coomarasamy, Paris
"The clear-up operation is still under way"
 real 28k

Thursday, 30 December, 1999, 19:33 GMT
Winds lash the French south-west

crushed car A tree falls down on cars at Langon, near Bordeaux


By the BBC's Alan le Breton

I live in the small village of St Mariens, just north of Bordeaux in the Gironde. It had been a pleasant - if uneventful - Christmas.

The winds which swept across south-western France on Monday night had been expected.



It wasn't natural lightning - it was the flash of high-tension electricity cables
Two days before, when reports of the storms that hit Paris and the north saturated radio and television reporting, warnings that another "tempete" was gathering force in the bay of Gascony followed each news bulletin.

But the ferocity with which it hit the picturesque, pine-forested region could never have been forseen.

'Low roar'

It began with a low roar, as darkness fell - the occasional gust shaking pine-cones across the home-going Bordelais traffic.


railway Railway workers clear toppled trees at Lespare near Bordeaux
Within a half hour the buffeting had become universal, lights in countryside houses began flickering , the rows of pine trees swaying like pond weed caught in a whirlpool.

Then, the wind shifted up a gear - those brave enough to peer from behind their shutters, were treated to a brilliant display of lightning in the distant skies. But it wasn't natural lightning - it was the flash of high-tension electricity cables touching - then snapping - against the force of the wind.

The small pools of light that were neighbouring villages across the valley glowed then went out like a pin-ball machine.

Suddenly, a black tide swept all from view.

'Sickening snapping'

With each roar of the tempest, familiar garden objects rattled past the window. The hissing crescendo of agitated pine-trees was punctuated by the sickening snapping of huge trees - like matchwood crackling on a campfire - and the distant thump as they fell to the ground.



The hissing crescendo of agitated pine-trees was punctuated by the sickening snapping of huge trees - like matchwood crackling on a campfire
But nobody was prepared for the impact overhead when the chimney crashed through the roof. It was like being in a bus hit from behind by a truck.

That, for our household, was the turning point - and, having done its worst, the roaring and the barking began to abate.

In less than five hours the deed had been done - life had been thrown back 50 years - gone was every domestic comfort: Heat, light, telephone, water, information.

'The second massacre'

As if to add insult to injury, first light dawned in a clear silence which, on any other day, would have promised the joys of a bright, crisp morning.

But, instead of birdsong, began the chattering of chainsaws - the second massacre had begun. All around was devastation.

I'd seen pictures of scoured French landscapes in books of the World War I.

But the wanton destruction of man, paled into insignificance against this natural desolation of forest tracts, upturned farm outhouses, collapsed pylons and tangled power cables.


flood A damaged house at St Loup de Montferrand, near Bordeaux
Shocked villagers began propping ladders against torn roofs, gazing with hands on hips at ancient oaks leaning through pierced walls - you just don't realise how high a tree is till you walk its length spread-eagled beside - or across - the roadway.

And then the obvious dawned - how do we get out? Commune by commune had been corralled and isolated. Where were the Pompiers?

The enterprising ones began to dismember strategic limbs of felled trees that as far as anyone could remember had towered over them.

'Robust self-interest'

The sprint was on for the local bakery - CLOSED as a result of the catastrophe.

You couldn't get to the petrol station because of trailing power cables, but its roof had blown away - and, in any case, there was no electricity to power the pumps.

Those walking back from the village laden with the last maxi packs of bottled water from a darkened supermarket, told of initial outpourings of mutual support and sympathy rapidly sinking into robust self-interest at the bread counter.

Worse were the tangled remains of the village Christmas decorations lay fluttering and muddied in the gutters by the roadside.

And all the time the sun smiled, the chainsaws buzzed. The aftermath of battle was as sad as it was surreal.

'Countryside side-show'

Traffic on the main road into Bordeaux crawled past with the motion of a like a giant caterpillar, its progress halted for hours at a time while wood and wire were pulled from its path, tired occupants of steamed up cars gazing vacantly at the unaccustomed feverish clearing and patching: An unexpected countryside side-show.



Those walking back from the village laden with the last maxi packs of bottled water ... told of initial outpourings of mutual support and sympathy rapidly sinking into robust self-interest at the bread counter
There was no leaving by train that day - nor for several more - all power on the prestigious TGV lines had been lost south of Poitiers, to the total frustration of the hundreds of travellers preparing to join loved ones for the new year reveillion.

A day later, the airport had recovered from its own battering.

So it was from a thousand feet that the departing impression remains.

From the geometrically neat Aquitaine coastline spreading eastwards, the wound cut through the skin of Charente and Gironde, would take years to heal.

"If you're thinking about all those doom-laden millennium predictions," suggested my companion - herself from the region - " I reckon it's just happened."

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See also:
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