A powerful Atlantic storm named Xynthia battered western Europe with hurricane-force winds, surging seas and driving rain on February 27 and 28, causing widespread property damage and severely disrupting transport networks and infrastructure. The most severe damage was predominantly seen in western France, though disruption was reported across several countries in western Europe. According to recent estimates, the storm left at least 62 people dead across France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, and more than 1 million households lost power at the height of the storm. At least 51 of the fatalities occurred in France, which was the country worst-affected by the windstorm.
According to AIR Worldwide, insured losses from Xynthia are expected to be between EUR1.5 billion and EUR3 billion (USD2 billion and USD4 billion) in France, Belgium, Germany and Netherlands. These losses do not include business interruption and additional living expenses for affected households, forestry losses, infrastructure losses and losses from non-modelled perils, including coastal surge and inland flooding. AIR said that flood and coastal storm surge losses are likely to be substantial. The modelling company added that while the size of individual claims is likely to be relatively low, the overall volume of claims is expected to be significant due to the size of the affected area.
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Windstorm Xynthia developed in the Atlantic Ocean off the Portuguese island of Madeira and hit the Spanish Canary Island archipelago late on February 26, with wind gusts of up to 128 kmph (80 mph) reported. Xynthia tracked northeast to crash against the western coasts of France and Spain overnight on February 27 and into the early hours of February 28. Reports said wind gusts reached 200 kmph (130 mph) on the summits of the Pyrenees and around 160 kmph (100 mph) along the Atlantic Coast. The departments of Vendee and Charente-Maritime in western France were among the hardest-hit regions as heavy rain, wind gusts of around 150 kmph (93 mph) and high spring tides triggered up to 8 meter (26 foot) storm surges that destroyed Atlantic coast sea walls and inundated buildings. Xynthia also brought a band of severe weather that stretched from Portugal to the Netherlands and inland as far as Germany.
According to reports, France was worst-hit by Xynthia. Officials said powerful winds caused roof damage across much of France. The strong winds also downed power lines and trees. As of March 3, the death toll in France had reached 51. Rivers overtopped their banks in Brittany, while high tides and enormous waves swamped other Atlantic Ocean communities. Reports estimated that more than a million French homes were without power during the storm, from the Brittany peninsula to the Massif Central. As of March 3, the power company EDF stated that 22,000 customers remained without electricity.
The French government declared a “Catastrophe Naturelle” in four departments (Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres, Vendee and Vienne) as the severe weather generated a storm surge that flooded properties. In a statement issued by the Federation Francaise des Societes d’Assurances (FFSA), all flood damage in the departments where a state of Catastrophe Naturelle has been declared will be covered by the state funded natural catastrophe pool. Damage in Charente-Maritime alone has been estimated at EUR135 million, reports said. Single story houses were submerged here and commercial properties also reportedly sustained some damage. In the department of Vendee, 25 people were reported to have been killed in the town of L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer as sea walls broke and ocean waters reached the roofs of some homes. Flood defences also failed in the town of La Faute sur Mer, where another 25 people died. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that the present priority was to make all homeless people safe. He added that flood prevention dykes would be strengthened in the aftermath of the storm.
Reports said more than 9,000 French firefighters and emergency workers backed by helicopters were deployed on March 1 to reach residents stranded on rooftops, mostly in Vendee and Charente-Maritime. 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 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 EUR10,000 in aid to help cover the costs of repairs in storm-hit areas.
There were significant transport delays on Sunday February 28, 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. No major damage was reported in Paris. Shortly after 17:00 on February 28, 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 6 people had been killed by falling trees and there were widespread reports of roof damage across the country. AIR Worldwide said building damage was reported in Heidelberg, Rheinland-Pfalz, Dusseldorf, Cologne, and Baden-Wurttemberg. Air and rail transport was also badly disrupted. 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). Elsewhere, fallen trees closed many stretches of train routes in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland.
In Spain, three people died in separate incidents in Burgos and Galicia. Wind gusts of up to 160 kmph (100 mph) swept through northwestern Spain on February 27, 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 the capital of Brussels was littered with fallen signs and trees. Elsewhere, wind gusts of up to 160 kmph (100 mph) were recorded in Switzerland, heavy rain triggered localised flooding in southern England and torrential rain fell in Madeira, exacerbating recent flooding and landslides on the island.
According to Risk Management Solutions (RMS), Xynthia is not expected to be as severe as Windstorm Lothar. Lothar hit France in 1999, with wind gusts of 180 kmph (111 mph) recorded in Paris compared to 108 kmph (67 mph) for Xynthia. Moreover, around 2 million households lost power after Lothar hit compared with half that amount for Xynthia. Reports said the intensity of Xynthia is thought to have been similar Windstorm Klaus, which was the most costly natural disaster of 2009 after triggering insured losses of around USD3.5 billion.
Sources: Agence France Presse, Associated Press, BBC News, Federation Francaise des Societes d’Assurances, The Independent, Insurance Journal, The New York Times, Reuters News, La Tribune, Platts Commodity News, Xinhua News Agency
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