SAINT-MARTIN-VESUBIE, France (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron said it will take months to rebuild buildings, roads and bridges that will allow an area in the Alps to get back to normal life as residents told him their distress after recent devastating floods.
With at least 13 dead and others missing, France and Italy are still assessing damage and cleaning up after violent rains that began Friday, sweeping away homes and unearthing bodies from cemeteries.
The death toll in France’s Alpes-Maritimes region increased to five dead and at least 20 people missing, Macron said as he visited the area Wednesday, using a helicopter to go from one village to another in the mountainous area near the Mediterranean coast.
“The nation will not abandon any of its territories, any of its children,” he said in a Facebook post before the trip. “Together we will surmount this.”
Speaking from the village of Breil-sur-Roya, Macron praised the “courage” and “solidarity” of rescuers and residents and promised government aid to flood victims.
Macron announced the creation of a fund to rebuild infrastructures and essential equipment. The French state will provide 100 million euros ($118 million) in emergency aid in addition to financing from the European Union and local authorities, he said.
Earlier Wednesday, Macron visited the village of Tende, in another valley close to the Italian border. He discussed with at length with villagers who described how they helped relatives and neighbors as the storm hit the area in the night from Friday to Saturday.
Several people told him they “lost everything” as their homes were destroyed by floodwaters and expressed their anxiety over their valley’s future. A woman, sobbing, asked him “not to forget us. We need help.”
Tende’s mayor, Jean-Pierre Vassallo, said one shepherd disappeared in a mudslide with a part of his herd while his brother managed to grip onto a tree and survived.
The village remained isolated with no electricity and no communications for two days, and all roads were blocked. “We were in dire straits,” Vassallo said. Since then, helicopters have started to provide water, food and other supplies.
“Thank you, thank you, you were brave,” Macron told firefighters and other rescuers both in Tende and Breil-sur-Roya, before heading to Saint-Martin-Vesubie.
About 3,000 homes were still without electricity in the area Wednesday, according to French energy company Enedis.
Still reeling days later, residents described to The Associated Press what they called the worst flooding in their lifetimes.
In the village of Saint-Martin-Vesubie, dogs barked frantically as their owners muzzled them to board evacuation helicopters for the city of Nice. One man sent his family to safety while he stayed behind to try to sort out an insurance claim, in hopes of some compensation for the damage to his home.
Residents gathered outside the town hall, hugging and trying to console each other. Someone set up a barbecue while people waited to be evacuated, grilling sausages for the group. Across the street, the town brasserie is now a field hospital and resting point for rescuers and medics working in the area. Outside one home, a van hung precariously on the edge of a cliff.
In Breil-sur-Roya, someone rescued a French tricolor flag from a bridge nearly wiped away by the floods, and hung it to dry on the remains of a tree felled by the storm. Mud caked everything — cars, dishes, floors and walls.
Five deaths have been reported in France, and eight in Italy since the storm pounded France’s Alpes-Maritimes region and Italy’s northwestern regions of Liguria and Piedmont. The Alpes-Maritimes regional administration said about 20 people were still missing Wednesday.
The French prime minister 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.