Business, Finance & Economics

Essay: French floods leave heartbreak

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DRAGUIGNAN, France — Climate change came so fast that Thierry Teisseire had to smash his front window and push a woman buying farm tools through the jagged glass.

In the nearby hamlet of Rebouillon, Mario and Maria Milese tried to wait out the sudden flood, sheltered in the cabin by their vegetable patch. Both were swept away.

Jean-Jean Riviere, their neighbor, dashed out to rescue his dog, still in his truck. Neither survived.

No one in their wildest dreams suspected the lazy little Nartuby River could turn on them. But the foot of rain that fell Tuesday north of Saint-Tropez killed 19 people.

As a reporter, I routinely flew off to Bangladesh and Mozambique to cover such damage. For this, I needed only my battered Suzuki jeep and a pair of muddy boots.

Rebouillon’s broad village common was aflame with crimson poppies on Monday. Today, it looked like a Chittagong floodplain.

Uprooted trees blocked the archways under Rebouillon’s old stone bridge. Within hours, it gave away, and the bridge vanished in a swirl of tumbling boulders.

Along the river, upended cars lay tangled among rubble that hours earlier had been family homes. Fruit-laden trees were torn away. Fields ready for harvest were washed away.

(Mort Rosenblum/GlobalPost)

As a deluge pounded the surrounding slopes, water cascaded down from every direction. It flooded low-lying Draguignan, rising to 5 feet in places.

“You see this on TV, and it’s always so remote,” Thierry Teisseire’s father, Jean, told me, still stunned a day later. “But here it is, right here. Now.”

It was his 73rd birthday. He had been inside the family store, Dragui-Motoculture, when rain pelted down so hard he decided to go to look around.

“Good thing,” he said. “Seconds later, a wall of water came down and flooded the place. I’m too old to have scrambled out that hole.”

Jean Teisseire looks at the hole he would have had to climb through had he not gone outside moments before water filled his store. (Mort Rosenblum/GlobalPost)

Four cars were washed off his parking lot. Two turned up more than a mile away. Tractors and trailers lay smashed on their sides.

Freak rain was part of it. No one can remember anything like it, certainly not in June when spring showers are over, and planting cycles depend on months of hot sun.

Scientists can quibble, but people whose ancestors have lived in these back Provence hills since Roman times believe what they see: frightening new climate chaos.

And man is the principal culprit. Houses, roadways, and concrete have been built across natural spillways. Forests were cleared to make room for people.

Near my hilltop olive grove, I found Olivier Munter channeling the runoff in the old way, making cuts with pick and shovel. His Rebouillon roots are four generations deep.

“Floodwaters stripped away modern engineering,” he said, “and it exposed rock culverts from medieval times that are still intact. Back then, they understood things.”

Denis George, an emergency coordinator for France’s National Forest Office, thinks the same.
He said the last comparable flood was in 1827 when people knew how to live with nature. Now cheap homes and pavement in precarious areas block natural watercourses.

Old stone walls — restanques — were dismantled for new construction or abandoned to tumble away. Flood waters, no longer diverted and dispersed, built into monster torrents.

Now George sees a serious threat of murderous fires.

“The ground is soaked, but a mistral [high winds] can dry out the trees in a few days,” he said. “The forest access roads are washed out, and we can’t get trucks in to fight fires.”

Along with material damage, the flood carried away much of the dying remnants of old-style life in this beguiling back pocket of Provence.

Years ago, Maria Milese stopped my wife, Jeannette, a newcomer to these parts. She plucked a rose as a welcome gift. “I grow these so people passing by can enjoy them,” she said.

She handed out bagfuls of fruit from her lush trees: persimmons, peaches, pears, apples and quince. Mario rattled by regularly in his Citroen truck, a beaming smile on his moon face.

Today, only a battered apple tree and a palm remain in Maria’s devastated yard. Mario’s vegetable fields are now rocky riverbed.

Toward Draguignan, Veronique Arneodo sold off the last produce at the roadside stand she will have to close. She lost 10 acres of everything from artichokes to watermelons.

Near our mountainside grove, Jeannot Romana ponders the fate of his old family farm. A bumper hay crop is rotting. His wheat fields and gardens were washed away.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Jeannot said, and he has seen a lot. “First no rain for years on end, and then this. Is it climate change? What else can it be?”