Floods in France, Italy swept bodies out of cemeteries

This photo released by the French Securite Civile Monday Oct.5, 2020 shows a man standing in the middle of a flooded street in Breil-sur-Roya, near the border with Italy, Saturday Oct. 3, 2020. Flooding has devastated mountainous areas in France's southeastern region of Alpes-Maritimes and Italy's northwestern regions of Liguria and Piedmont, after a storm swept through the two countries on Friday and Saturday. (Sécurité Civile-UIISC via AP)
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The grim job of searching for flood victims in Alpine villages and on the nearby French and Italian coasts has grown even more gruesome: Along with storm casualties, authorities say corpses from cemeteries have also been found around the Mediterranean shore, apparently swept down the mountain by violent rains.

A total of 12 deaths have been reported since the storm pounded France’s Alpes-Maritimes region and Italy’s northwestern regions of Liguria and Piedmont starting Friday – four on the French side, eight on the Italian side.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said French rescuers were still searching Tuesday for 21 people missing.

“My thoughts go to grieving families, those who are waiting to hear from their relatives or who have lost everything,” he said at the National Assembly.

Castex said more than 900 rescuers, 500 police officers and some troops were involved in the emergency operation in the mountainous region, which is home to 12,000 residents.

He added that about 700 people were staying in hotels or other accommodation sites after being evacuated from their homes.

French President Emmanuel Macron will visit the area Wednesday.

Corpses unearthed from cemeteries have washed up on the Italian side, a spokeswoman for the Alpes-Maritimes regional administration told The Associated Press. She could not say how many or where they came from, and it was unclear whether the bodies were among the eight reported dead in Italy from the storm. Italian local authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.

The cemetery corpses were in such an advanced state of decomposition that they were clearly distinguishable from recent storm victims, the French spokeswoman said.

Local authorities have said cemeteries in the French towns of Saint-Martin-de-Vesubie and Tende were partially washed out by the floods. Tende Mayor Jean-Pierre Vassallo told Le Parisien newspaper that the village cemetery “was cut in two” and bodies were unearthed.

Forensic police working to identify the dead are among the security forces, firefighters, rescue divers and others helping Tuesday in the continuing search and cleanup effort, according to a spokesman for France’s national gendarme service.

Police are going door-to-door to check on people reported as missing in hamlets where roads, electricity, communications and water supplies were cut off by the storm, the spokesman said.

Neither spokesperson was authorized to be publicly named according to official policy.

In Breil-sur-Roya, the river that runs through the village of 2,000 residents, usually known for trout fishing, turned during the storm into a torrent of mud, rocks and debris.

Longtime residents describe the damage in biblical terms, saying they’d never seen anything like it.

Some have started to clean up, spending their whole day shoveling mud out of shops and homes while trucks hauled away felled trees to clear streets and roads. Cars coated in caked mud were piled on top of each other.

“It’s a catastrophic situation,” said Georges Pomarede, a retired police officer clearing out his home in Breil-sur-Roya. “All of that is gone, no more campground, no stadium, no more swimming pool, no more shops, a hotel is gone … entire houses swallowed by the floods. It’s a phenomenal disaster.”

Some roads were still blocked by debris Tuesday, so helicopters were delivering supplies to stranded populations, like in the village of Saint-Martin-Vesubie.

Alain Gallo, 74, said a big wave came down river. “The trees started flying around and when I saw this (my wife and I) got into the car and left.”

Another resident, Alain Pallanca, was evacuated in a bus to the city of Nice. “The water, it was as fast as a Formula 1 (car), faster than 300 kilometers per hour and it wiped away everything in its path,” he said.