France floods ease as Seine starts to recede

PHOTO: Reuters

The rain-swollen River Seine in Paris began receding Saturday after reaching its highest level in three decades, easing fears after devastating floods sent the Louvre and other riverside museums scrambing to protect their treasures.

From a peak of 6.10 metres in the early hours of Saturday, the river began to subside, falling to 6.04 metres at 10:00am (0800 GMT), the environment ministry's Vigicrues flood watch website said.

The record for the Seine is 8.62 metres, reached in 1910.

"We're now in the stabilisation phase, even if we could still get one or two centimetres more", said Bruno Janet, head of modelling at Vigicrues.

The city remained on orange flood alert but the threat appeared to have shifted to northeastern France, where threatened storms could cause other rivers to burst their banks, as well as around the northern port of Le Havre where the Seine flows into the sea.

The Louvre and Orsay museums, which sit on opposite banks of the Seine, remained closed Saturday, a day after shutting their doors in a race to move art treasures from their basements to higher ground.

On Saturday, pieces of driftwood, plastic bags and other detritus swept past in the muddy waters which engulfed the city's famous riverside walkways, a popular haunt of strolling couples.

Two metro stations remained closed and services on a train line that hugs the Seine was still suspended in places. Boat traffic was also suspended.

The City of Paris said it had opened two gyms to shelter the homeless.

Across Europe, at least 17 people have been killed in floods caused by pounding rains that have trapped people in their homes and forced rescuers to navigate swamped streets in lifeboats.

Four of them have died in France, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Saturday.

More than 20,000 people have been evacuated over the past week from the Loire Valley and the greater Paris area.

Over 17,110 homes remained without power Saturday, electricity supplier Enedis said.

Paris firefighters warned people to keep away from dangerous parts of the river, but crowds gathered undeterred on bridges to snap pictures of the fast-flowing waters.

"It is a reminder that nature is more powerful than man and we cannot do anything, only wait," said Gabriel Riboulet, a 26-year-old entrepreneur, as he took in the scene.

French President Francois Hollande said a state of "natural catastrophe" would be declared when the cabinet meets on Wednesday, a necessary step to trigger compensation payments.

Nationwide losses could reach more than 600 million euros ($680 million), said Bernard Spitz of France's association of insurers.

The head of national railways operator SNCF, Guillaume Pepy, said the rail network had suffered "catastrophic" damage which would run to tens of millions of euros.

Persistently heavy rainfall across western and central Europe has claimed victims from at least four countries.

Eleven people have been killed in the German states of Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, and two in Romania, while a beekeeper died in Belgium while trying to save his hives.

In France, the victims included a man on horseback who drowned after being swept away by a swollen river in Evry-Gregy-sur-Yerres, southeast of Paris.

Environment Minister Segolene Royal said she feared more bodies would be found as waters receded in villages in the centre of the country, some of which have suffered their worst floods in a century.

The closure of the Louvre and Orsay museums, which receive a combined total of 12.5 million visitors a year, highlighted the flood threat to key cultural sites.

Eva Palomares, a holidaymaker from the Italian city of Milan, said she was disappointed to be unable to visit the Louvre but added: "The star today is the Seine. You have to feel its angry rumble." On Friday evening, Hollande visited the museum, where dozens of volunteers toiled through the night to bring some of the 38,000 artworks thought to be at risk to safety.

The Louvre will remain closed until Wednesday while the Orsay said it would reopen Tuesday.

The Grand Palais exhibition centre was also shut, as were two of the National Library's sites.

The downpours have added to the gloom caused by months of protests and strikes over a labour reform bill that have continued in the run-up to the June 10 kick-off of the Euro 2016 football championships.