Rescue efforts stepped up after floods kill two near France-Italy border

French and Italian rescue services have stepped up search efforts after floods cut off several villages near the two countries’ border, causing widespread damage and killing two people in Italy.

Eight people remained unaccounted for on the French side of the border after storms, torrential rain and flash floods battered the area, washing away roads and houses and triggering landslides.

Breil-sur-Roya, a French village close to the Italian border, was a scene of devastation with houses buried in mud and overturned cars stuck in the riverbed, Agence France-Presse said.

Rescue efforts were concentrated on the Roya Valley where about 1,000 firefighters, backed by helicopters and the army, resumed the search for survivors, while giving assistance to people whose homes were destroyed or inaccessible.

Storm Alex barrelled into France’s west coast on Thursday bringing powerful winds and rain before moving into northern Italy.

“What we are going through is extraordinary,” the prefect of the Alpes-Maritimes region, Bernard Gonzalez, said after as much as 60cm (2ft) of rain fell over 24 hours in the worst-affected areas.

France has declared the region a natural disaster zone. Saint-Martin-Vésubie, a French village of 1,400 people north of Nice, was cut off by road. A group of tourists and residents,including a woman who had lost her house, gathered in the village’s local square to be airlifted to safety, an AFPTV journalist said after reaching the site on foot.

The French prime minister, Jean Castex, inspected the damage by helicopter on Saturday and said his government had triggered its emergency plan for natural disasters. He said he feared the number of people missing could rise after dozens of cars, as well as several houses, were swept away.

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Local authorities gave shelter to about 200 people overnight, while food and thousands of bottles of water were being airlifted into villages cut off by the storms.

Gonzalez called on the families of the missing people not to give up hope. “Just because their loved ones haven’t been able to get in touch doesn’t mean that they have been taken by the storm,” he said.

Many landline and some mobile phone services were disrupted, with some villages using satellite phones to communicate with rescue services. Despite forecasts of more rain, rescue efforts were to continue throughout Sunday, Gonzalez said. “The helicopter procession will continue all day long,” he said.

The two people who died on Saturday in Italy were a volunteer firefighter on a rescue operation in the Aosta Valley and a man whose car was washed away in the River Sesia.

The presidents of Italy’s Piedmont and Liguria regions signed a joint letter calling on the government to declare a state of emergency with several villages cut off.

“The situation is very serious. It is like it was in 1994 [when 70 died after the Po and Tarano rivers flooded],” Piedmont’s president, Alberto Cirio, told La Stampa newspaper. “The difference being 630mm of water fell in 24 hours – unprecedented in such a small timeframe since 1954.”

Cirio said Italy was already struggling to cope with the effects of the coronavirus, which has left about 36,000 dead and shattered the economy over the past six months.

“We are already in an extraordinary situation. Because of the pandemic the region will this year receive €200m less in tax receipts. If the state does not intervene [with rescue funding] we shall not recover.”

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