Schools closed, roads underwater: the toll of Gard’s stormy weather

Parts of the southern French department had two months of rain in three hours yesterday, with people having to be airlifted to safety from flash flooding

15 September 2021

A record volume of rainfall caused severe flooding in the southern department of Gard yesterday (September 14) Pic: SNCF TER liO Occitanie via Twitter / Vinci Autoroutes via Twitter

By Emma Morgan

The department of Gard is still under an orange storm alert after heavy rain and hail caused severe flooding yesterday (September 14). 

Gard joins Hérault, Ardèche and Drôme on this alert level, which asks people to “be very vigilant,” as “dangerous weather events” are expected. 

A “record” day for rainfall 

In the village of Saint-Dionisy (Gard), 244mm of rain fell in three hours yesterday, the amount that one would expect to fall over two months and an “undoubted record” according to Météo France. 

The French state weather service added that this volume of rainfall is “close to the record for the whole of mainland France,” which was set in Montpellier in 2014, when 253mm came down in three hours. 

A person who was missing around the town of Aimargues after falling into the Rhony river has this morning been found safe and sound, having spent four hours in the water. 

Before them, two others had been reported missing in Aigues-Vives and Uchaud, which are both located close to the A9 motorway, which connects Nîmes et Montpellier.

Gard’s prefecture announced that one person had been found at the end of the afternoon, while further research into the whereabouts of the second led the authorities to rule out the possibility that they were still missing.

One person has sustained “minor injuries” after being struck by lightning, but no other casualties have yet been reported in the department. 

Around 800 firefighters from Gard and its neighbouring departments were mobilised to tackle the damage caused by the floodwater. 

The heavy rain caused a stream running underneath the A9 to burst its banks, trapping dozens of motorists on the road.

Some had to be airlifted from the scene by a helicopter, and one lorry driver told LCI that he had to climb onto the roof of a minivan stopped next to his vehicle. 

“I couldn’t open my door and that was the only exit route I could see,” he said. “I wasn’t going to put my feet into the water, the current would have swept me away. I helped another person get out of their vehicle and we got onto the roof.”

“We saw this torrent of water arrive and we felt like it was the end of the world,” another driver added. 

The flood caused a gas leak which meant that the road only became usable again in the early evening, 14km of traffic having built up over the afternoon.

The train line between Lunel (Hérault) and Nîmes was also flooded, and rail services in the area are still disrupted this morning. 

Gard’s prefecture has closed the department’s schools today due to the weather conditions. 

An effect of climate change

“The intensity of the rain which has affected the area around Nîmes is historic,” Météo France said, adding that this violent event is a result of climate change. 

“When the climate is artificially heated by man, there is a higher concentration of water vapour in the atmosphere, and the heavy rains associated with this kind of meteorological episode become more and more common, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.”

However, “nothing led us to predict such an immense amount of rainfall,” Météo France stated. The weather service’s ‘supercalculator’ forecasters should have been able to detect what was coming, but they anticipated neither the location nor the intensity of the rain. 

Météo France had seen that heavy rain was heading for Gard, but only when the weather system began to linger around Nîmes did it realise the volume of the precipitation to come and move the department to a red storm warning. 

Staying safe in a storm 

People in the areas placed under an orange storm warning should: 

  • Avoid going out if possible and find shelter within their home or another secure building
  • Drive slowly if they have to use their car. If visibility becomes so bad that they cannot see, or if they come across a flooded road, they should stop the vehicle
  • Not shelter under trees, where they are more likely to be hit by lightning
  • Try to secure any possessions that will be exposed to the wind and rain
  • Keep away from bodies of water and low-lying ground, making instead for higher ground or upstairs rooms if inside
  • Keep up to date with the latest advice 
  • Not go down into their basement or cellar 

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