Rescue efforts begin after deadly storm breaches sea wall in France

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Thousands of firefighters and other rescue workers searched house by house Monday 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, called Xynthia, blew into France early 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 Monday, the coastal regions of Vendee and Charente-Maritime, and pledged €3 million ($4 million) in emergency aid.

Regional officials clamored 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 2-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.

In the southwestern French town of La Faute sur Mer, firefighters evacuated stranded residents by boat Monday and car roofs just peeked out above the floodwaters. At Ile de Re, near La Rochelle, broken-off boulders from a shattered sea wall lay strewn about the beach.

France’s railways had major delays, and cancellations continued Monday 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,” Sarkozy said. “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.”

One official noted just how old some sea walls were.

“The sea wall that broke dated from (the era) of Napoleon,” Philippe de Villiers, a far-right politician who heads the regional government in Vendee, told France-Info. “Either we build (new) sea walls, in which case they need to be taller and taller … or we have to build further” inland.

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.

The Azores islands lie 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) west of mainland Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean.