The weather bureau and radio stations across France had posted warnings on Saturday of gale force winds and a storm to come. But what hit France's western Atlantic coastline in the early hours of Sunday was no ordinary storm and no one foresaw the mayhem it would bring in its wake.
Winds at 160 km per hour combined with unusually high tides pounded small, unprotected fishing villages and seaside tourist havens. Entire rural communities were inundated and nearly 50 lives were lost, most of the dead caught unawares by the swiftly mounting wall of water.
The storm, called Xynthia, flooded ports, destroyed homes and left one million households without electricity. It also battered Belgium, Portugal, Spain and parts of Germany. The death toll across Europe was 60 although a dozen persons are still missing and feared dead.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited the stricken towns and villages declared the area a natural disaster zone and pledged €3 million for reconstruction.
More than 9,000 firefighters and other emergency rescue workers were going house-to-house on Monday in France's hard-hit Atlantic coastal regions of Vendee and Charente-Maritime, searching for those still stranded and for additional victims, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said. He told France-Info radio on Monday the death toll would “doubtless” increase.
The storm also snarled train and air travel throughout the continent, with major delays on French railways and continued cancellations on Monday at Frankfurt airport, one of Europe's most important hubs.
Ecologists and architects issued calls for better urbanisation and stricter construction rules. “The change in climate patterns means that we have to anticipate. So far we have allowed construction very close to the water's edge. We have to take a closer look at how we build and where we build,” Chantal Jouanno, Junior Minister for Ecology told journalists.