A powerful Atlantic storm named Xynthia battered Western Europe with hurricane-force winds, surging seas and driving rain on 27 and 28 February, causing widespread property damage and disrupting transport networks. According to recent estimates, the storm has left at least 56 people dead across France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, and more than 1 million households have been left without power. At least 47 of the fatalities have occurred in France, which has been the country worst-affected by the windstorm.
Windstorm Xynthia developed in the Atlantic Ocean off the Portuguese island of Madeira and hit the Spanish Canary Island archipelago late on Friday February 26, with wind gusts of up to 128 kmph (80 mph) reported. Xynthia tracked north-east to crash against the western coasts of France and Spain overnight on February 27 and into the early hours of February 28. The storm brought a band of severe weather that stretched from Portugal to the Netherlands and inland as far as Germany.
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According to reports, France was worst-hit by Xynthia as Meteo France put five of the country’s 95 departments on a red alert weather warning. The Atlantic seaboard was battered by hurricane-force winds of up to 140 kmph (87 mph) and torrential rain on Sunday February 27, prompting the French government to declare the event a “Catastrophe Naturelle” and thereby releasing funds to help communities rebuild in the aftermath of the event. Officials said roof damage was reported across much of France. The powerful winds also downed power lines and trees. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that the present priority was to make all homeless people and those still threatened by rising floodwaters safe. He added that flood prevention dykes would be strengthened in the aftermath of the storm.
As of Monday March 1, the death toll in France had reached 47, with at least 30 more people missing. Most of the deaths that occurred were reportedly caused by storm surge flooding or by falling trees or branches. Reports estimated that during the storm, more than a million French homes were without power, from the Brittany peninsula to the Massif Central. As of Sunday evening, the power company EDF stated that 500,000 customers remained without electricity. The worst-affected areas of France were reported to be the Vendee and the Charente-Maritime departments on the western coast, where huge waves of up to eight metres (26 feet) and strong wind gusts of up to 150 kmph (93 mph) battered many coastal towns, flooding inland areas and destroying buildings. Single storey houses were submerged here and commercial properties also reportedly sustained some damage.
Reports said more than 9,000 French firefighters and emergency workers backed by helicopters were deployed on 1 March to reach residents stranded on rooftops, mostly in the departments of the Vendee and Charente-Maritime. Rescue teams used boats to reach flooded houses whose residents had been reported missing in the town of L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer in the department of the Vendee. In this town alone, 25 people were reported dead. Hundreds of families in coastal regions spent the night in shelters that were set up in schools and public buildings. Regional officials said that around 30 people were admitted to the hospital.
Elsewhere in France, farms and fisheries were badly affected, prompting the Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Marie to promise compensation from a national disaster relief fund. The commerce minister Herve Novelli also said that small businesses would receive 10,000 euros in aid to help cover the costs of repairs in storm-hit areas.
There were significant transport delays on Sunday, with Air France cancelling more than 100 flights and more than half of those departing from Paris suffering major delays, according to Aeroports de Paris. An air traffic spokesperson said that flight schedules began to return to normal at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on Sunday evening. TGV train services were also severely delayed due to branches and other debris obstructing the rail network.
In Paris, winds of 175 kmph (110 mph) were recorded at the top of the Eiffel Tower, falling short of the record of 200 kmph (124 mph) winds that were recorded during the December 1999 storm system that claimed 92 lives.
Shortly after 17:00 on 28 February, Meteo France reported that the storm system had passed into Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, with strong winds also being reported in Switzerland.
In Germany, police reported that 4 people had been killed by falling trees and there was widespread disruption to air and rail transport. A spokesman from Frankfurt airport said that at least 200 flights had been cancelled due to high winds and the central train station was also closed after wind gusts reached around 130 kmph (80 mph).
In Spain, three people died in separate incidents in Burgos and Galicia. Wind gusts of up to 160 kmph (100 mph) swept through north western Spain on Saturday, closing rail services and causing power outages in some 100,000 households. Portugal was also hit by powerful winds and heavy rain as a falling tree killed a person in Paredes and the northern cities of Porto and Vile Nova de Gaia issued river flood warnings. In Belgium, meanwhile, a man was killed by flying debris and emergency services were called out to deal with fallen power lines.
Windstorm Xynthia was located over Sweden on Monday 1 March, but the storm’s strength has decreased substantially.
Sources: Agence France Presse, Associated Press, BBC News, The Independent, The New York Times, Reuters News, La Tribune, Platts Commodity News, Xinhua News Agency.
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