Sunday, 25 January 2009

Les intempéries

I love that word. So much nicer than 'bad weather'. And definitely nicer than the storm that ploughed its way across south-west France yesterday. We were warned: Metéo France put numerous departments on Alerte Rouge - the highest kind of severe 'don't go out on pain of death' weather warning, used only for the kind of rare phenomenon that happens once every ten years or so, the last time being the huge storm of 1999 which brought down millions of trees and killed 88 people. This time, we were once again to expect winds of near-hurricane levels, up to 160 km an hour. Bizarrely, whilst every other department across the south-west, from Pyrénées Atlantiques to Pyrénées Orientales, was on Alerte Rouge, Ariège - which sits right in the middle of the storm's projected path - was only on Alerte Orange, as if the storm was somehow supposed to go round us.

Which it did, in a fashion. It was windy. Very, very windy. But I'd guess that our winds were maybe around 100 or 120 km an hour rather than the 180-odd touched in Landes, Gironde, Perpignan and on the Aude coast. In Aude, our neighbouring department, the Prefect actually decreed at lunchtime that all shops and shopping centres of more than 1000 square metres must close immediately, leaving customers and staff inside 'for their own safety', and banned all traffic from the roads - even the pompiers unless it was a situation of life or death. 

So what of Grillou? Well, we lost electricity at around 10am yesterday morning, phone a little later and mobile phone signal a little later still. We covered the freezer in quilts and blankets, lit the wood burner and settled in for the long haul - we were in France during the aftermath of the 1999 hurricane, when it took three weeks to restore power to every household. Listening on fading batteries to SudRadio's special day-long 'solidarity' programme, I discovered that we were just one of 1,700,000 households without power. We watched as the storm hit; millions of particles of lichen flew around, creating a kind of green blizzard; tree branches broke off and zoomed past the windows. The trees around us bent to unbelievable angles in the gusts; some came down, a few more lost their tops. Our beautiful ancient oaks, fortunately, escaped unscathed. So, but unfortunately, did the five huge leylandii planted (for reasons that escape me, given my lifetime loathing for the things) by our predecessors that are on the A list for cutting down as soon as the weather improves. The trees, that is, not our predecessors.

By five thirty the worst winds had passed, on towards the Mediterranean coast where they inflicted huge damage. We went into camping mode and cooked by oil- and gas-light, ate by candlelight and walked around the house with our LED head-lamps on. This morning, we awoke to find our power and telephone had been restored. It's a gloriously sunny and warm day; the air resounds to the sound of chainsaws (including ours) as everybody sets to to clear land, roads and chemins. Over the course of the the storm, four people died, several more were injured; many, many communes, particularly those close to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean where the winds hit speeds never before seen in France, will be today surveying serious damage; over a million households are still without electricity; some of the worst hit areas are today under flood alert as yet more heavy rain swells rivers that are already in, or close to, flood. We have been lucky.

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